'Student Xing': Who slows down?
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:15 PM
"The phrase is, at first glance, pretty straightforward:When children are present.But with motorists roaring through the Blakely Elementary School zone at all hours - even when class is in session - parent Susan Brink isn't sure that a law meant to slow traffic for the safety of students is doing what it's supposed to.It's not when they're off to the side in the (school) yard, not when they're approaching - it's when they're in the road, Brink concluded, after talking to several law enforcement agencies about the 20-mph speed limit in school zones. It just seems wrong, especially since these are little kids. You can't count on them to use the best judgment.Brink, a resident of Mabrey Lane just north of the south-end K-4 school, walks her first-grade son Cameron to the school grounds each morning and walks him home in the afternoon, because she distrusts passing motorists. Other parents on her street drive their kids to school - despite the fact that the campus sits just 100 yards away.The problem, under informal scrutiny by a number of parents in the area, reflects a variety of conditions - constant traffic, poor access for pedestrians and bicyclists, and a law that seems to mean different things to different people.Someone told me 'it's because you're not desensitized to (speeding), said Brink, a Port Townsend native who moved to the island this summer after a decade in Oregon. Well, I don't want to be desensitized to it.(Motorists) do tend to drive a little faster than I'm comfortable with, with children around, agreed Judith Panteleeff, who has worked as a crossing guard at the school's sole crosswalk for a decade.Above the crosswalk, a flashing light controlled by a nearby switch can be turned on to caution motorists. The light used to be turned on only in the morning and afternoon as school kids came and went, but Panteleeff said she now leaves it on all day. It's as much to educate the parents as the children, Panteleeff said.What's the law?Like the basic rule that tells drivers not to go too fast for conditions regardless of the posted limit, the 20-mph school zone seems to leave considerable discretion to all concerned.Bainbridge Police Detective Scott Anderson, who still works the roads sometimes as a patrol officer, said the law is open to interpretation by both the police in the field and the courts as they adjudicate tickets.I believe the law is designed to protect children, so I tend to enforce it when I think children are at risk, Anderson said. That might not mean when students are inside the building during the day - but it might well mean late at night, for example, if high school students are getting off the bus after returning from a sports event.Anderson said local drivers need to realize that easing up on the pedal through school zones, regardless of the time of day, will only cost them a few lost seconds on their trip.The bottom line is, when in doubt, slow down, Anderson said. If you go flying into the zone in front of Blakely School at 40 mph, and you suddenly find children present, you're going too fast. Solutions?To the frustration of some school officials, the problem is often compounded by those trying to avoid it. Parents concerned about safety may drive their kids to school - which in turn creates more traffic around the schools, exacerbating safety concerns.District officials have for years tried to discourage parents from driving their kids to school, with varying success. New, later start times and the opening of Sakai Intermediate School have eased longstanding traffic problems around Woodward Middle School - the start time is simply too late in the morning for many ferry commuters to drop their kids off.But conversely, Blakely Principal Ric Jones noted, his school's new dismissal time of 3:40 p.m. means many parents feel they have to pick up their kids to get them to after-school activities like soccer practice on time.Another part of the safety problem is that pedestrian access around Blakely School is poor, and varies wildly around the other elementary campuses.Posted speeds around schools range from 25-40 mph, depending on road classification. Some school zones have sidewalks, bike lanes and curbing - and various combinations thereof - depending primarily on when a given roadway or neighboring property was last improved.Bruce Weiland, school board president, said the district has identified pedestrian and bicycle safety as a high priority in its Vision 2010 plan, and has chipped in funds to the city's non-motorized transportation planning effort. Weiland said he would like to see improvements around school zones addressed comprehensively, rather than piecemeal as individual parcels are developed. For example, a new sidewalk went in north of Ordway School with the construction of the LDS church - but the sidewalk stops at the vacant lot next door, rather than extending on to link with bike lanes on New Brooklyn Road.Future sidewalks and other improvements, Weiland suggested, could be paid for by the school district and adjacent property owners together through the formation of local improvement districts.I know we would be happy to contribute to safety, Weiland said, because it's our kids we're talking about. But for some parents, the heart of the issue remains the speed of drivers - not those going to and from schools, but those passing through to somewhere else.At Blakely School, parents say that because of the intense amount of construction going on at the south end, dumptrucks and other heavy vehicles are a regular hazard on Blakely Avenue.I've seen some go through at 40 mph, even when (the crossing guard) has her stick out, Brink said.Observations Monday afternoon varied. When no children were in sight, several trucks barreled through at high speed; later, when a group of parents and kids gathered at the crosswalk, one truck driver slowed down and made a peace sign.Jones noted that he has no control over what happens off the school grounds; police say they lack sufficient manpower to set up roadside radar enforcement; Weiland sympathizes with parents, but said it's a question of resources.It's a big, scary thing, Weiland said of speeding traffic. But it's a classic example - if you want police coverage, you have to pay for cops.Blakely parents are still trolling about for direction; some would like to see pedestrian trails off the right of way; others would like to see the speed limit on Blakely Avenue permanently lowered, at least around the grounds.I wouldn't mind seeing a speed bump, honestly, parent Jim Dietrich said. But I know that's not going to happen.Brink said she will continue to walk her youngster to school each day.You want kids to go play at the school, even when school's over, she said. But I'm not going to send my kids there by themselves. "