It’s the time of the year when parents cheer and kids mourn. It’s back to class this week for thousands of students as public schools begin (although some started last week).

AAA is out with its “School’s Open — Drive Carefully” campaign, which serves as a reminder of things both motorists and pedestrians ought to know and already be doing, but maybe got lax in practicing during the summer.

No. 1 is staying alert. Bad things can happen in just a moment of inattention. In 2015, driver distraction was one of the top contributing factors for crashes between vehicles and pedestrians. And there is a lot to watch for in a school zone: school buses, other parents dropping off kids and children riding bikes or arriving on foot. And don’t forget to obey the school crossing guards.

Driver distraction was one of the leading causes of fatal crashes involving child pedestrians, who are most likely to be hit between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. weekdays, according to AAA research.

“The biggest thing is that people are not paying attention. They are focused on [things] other than driving,” said AAA Minneapolis driving instructor Mike Torkelson. “Then in a school zone you add in school buses and kids and that can be a challenge and add extra risk to the situation.”

Lay off the gas pedal, too. Children often have a difficult time processing speed and distance, and if they unexpectedly dart into the street, they end up in dangerous situations, said Gail Weinholzer of AAA Minnesota-Iowa. Motorists need to give themselves enough time and distance to come to a stop. That’s one reason speeds in school zones are normally lower than on other stretches of roads.

The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center of the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center found that pedestrians hit by vehicles going 40 miles per hour had an 85 percent chance of being killed. At 30 miles per hour, the chances of a pedestrian dying dropped to 30 percent. And at 20 miles per hour, they survive 95 percent of the time.

‘Let’s not have a tragedy’

One-third of drivers roll through crosswalks and through stop signs, AAA found. That’s a recipe for disaster. Coming to a complete stop is the law, but it also provides the opportunity to look for pedestrians.

Students are our future drivers, and the way we behave or misbehave behind the wheel will impart lifelong lessons. “The No. 1 influence on teen drivers is how parents drive,” Torkelson said. “We need a change of mind-set. Instead of being in a hurry, think about what could possibly go wrong. We need to be cautious and bring our speeds down. Let’s not have a tragedy.”

Safety is a two-way street, and children have a shared role, too. They should be taught to cross streets only at crosswalks and stay on sidewalks when available. Last year, 32 percent of pedestrians killed and 26 percent of those injured were trying to cross a road at an area with no crosswalk and no signal.

Bicyclists should ride predictably so motorists know what their intentions are. This means using hand signals, riding in a straight line and obeying traffic signals. They should wear helmets and reflective gear to increase their visibility.

“Most traffic injuries to our kids can be prevented,” said Paul Aasen, president of the Minnesota Safety Council. “A small investment of time can make all the difference for you and your family.”


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