Few Drivers Slow Down in School Zones, Study Finds

Reviewed by Annie Finnegan

Oct. 4, 2000 (Washington) -- Most people driving in school zones exceed the speed limit, risking the lives of children who are too young to know how to protect themselves, according to a national survey released Wednesday.

"The results of this survey are a red flag for families," says Heather Paul, PhD, executive director of SAFE KIDS, an organization devoted to preventing childhood injuries that was the sponsor of the survey. "We thought there would be speeding, but not to this extent."

The survey, the first of its kind, was based on an analysis of more than 16,000 vehicles passing through 63 school zones in 29 cities during September. About 65% of the vehicles passing through school zones during before- and after-school hours travel over the speed limit, it shows, with almost a quarter going at least 10 mph above the limit, and another third at least 30 mph above.

That could spell a serious problem. Pedestrian injury is the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death among children aged 5 to 14, according to federal figures. Each year, 650 pedestrians 14 and under die in motor-vehicle-related crashes, and 20,000 more are injured.

Based on those figures, the absolute number of traffic-related deaths of children has declined about 33% over the last decade. But the survey shows that is a result of more parents driving their children to school, rather than drivers exercising more caution, Paul tells WebMD.

"The survey is a sort of litmus test of drivers," she says, while noting that people who speed through school zones also are more likely to speed with children in the car -- another major cause of childhood injuries. "If cars speed in areas most sacred for children, we know that child pedestrians are at risk on our community streets. It's time to turn this trend around."

According to federal figures, a child's risk of being killed is about 40% when he or she is hit by a vehicle traveling at 30 mph, and approximately 80% when hit by a vehicle traveling 40 mph. The speed limit in most school zones is about 15 mph.

To address this problem, SAFE KIDS has joined with FedEx Express to spread the word and to educate children, parents, and motorists about pedestrian safety. FedEx volunteers, community leaders, parents, and schools also will form local pedestrian task forces to develop "traffic-calming measures" in hopes of making streets more walkable.

But motorists beware. In at least 30 localities, the campaign also will target drivers.

"We'll be giving out a whole bunch of tickets," confirms Charles Ramsey, chief of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department, where authorities are planning to more aggressively enforce school-zone speed limits. Using modern enforcement techniques such as stationary radar guns equipped with cameras, police are prepared to give teeth to the SAFE KIDS campaign, Ramsey says.

"Drivers need to be aware that exceeding the speed limits not only puts our children at risk, but is against the law and will not be tolerated," Ramsey says. "This isn't a request; we are demanding that you pay attention."

Still, most drivers probably just need a wake-up call, Paul says. Motorists tend to forget that driving is a privilege that should be exercised with caution, rather than a right that can be exercised with impunity, she tells WebMD.

SAFE KIDS has launched the campaign at 40 schools across the nation, Paul says, and also has enlisted the help of local officials to implement additional solutions, including adding new traffic lights and crosswalks. The education campaign, Paul says, will focus on injury-prevention strategies, such as ensuring that children obey traffic signals, walk instead of run, and cross streets only when accompanied by a responsible party.

But in the end, "We have got to remember that drivers do not rule the road," she tells WebMD. "Our first responsibility is to pedestrians."