School zone safety gets a boostBetter signs and reduced speeds all day will complement tougher enforcement.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 4:00 PM
"Better signs and high-profile police presence will promote safety in school zones this fall, advocates hope.A grant from the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission will fund overtime work and put extra patrol officers around schools for the next two weeks, Bainbridge Police Traffic Officer Rob Corn said. Police will use radar enforcement and a portable speed sign to show drivers how fast they're going.Also, the city's public works department will revise school zone speed limits to specify 20 mph from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for Blakely and Wilkes elementary schools during weekdays.An awareness campaign is under way on Town and Country Thiftway grocery bags, and book covers and ad-free posters printed with safety awareness information sponsored by Chevron. It's taken five years, but two-thirds of our original goal has been met, said parent safety advocate Althea Mallove, citing work to increase enforcement, clarify 20 mph When Children Are Present signs, and cut the 40 mph speed limits around some schools to 30 mph.Two out of three's not bad, Mallove said, but we need to keep working. The processTraffic activists say the road to increased safety has been winding, with some detours and even a few stop signs along the way.The zone saga began for Mallove soon after she moved to the island in 1996. Mallove lived near enough to Wilkes Elementary School to walk her child there each day, until a neighbor asked: Are you nuts?I soon found out why, Mallove said. Roads with no sidewalk or shoulder meant playing Russian roulette with passing cars, especially when many drivers went faster than the speed limit. The sign posted by schools - Speed Limit 20 mph When Children Are Present - seemed subject to interpretation, even by police. Variously translated as: during school hours and when children are visible outside, the law, in fact, refers to children in a marked crosswalk, waiting at the shoulder to cross, or on the shoulder within 300 feet of a crosswalk - too close to moving vehicles, in any event, for some parents' comfort. Mallove, with like-minded parents Sheri Mackey and Jania Henderson approached Wilkes officials to get a crossing guard at the intersection of North Madison and Day Road. In 1997 they succeeded.Then in 1998, Mallove joined the Woodward-Sakai traffic task force. She sat on a blue-ribbon committee on traffic safety including Mayor Dwight Sutton, many school district top officials and the school board president.The group met on and off for a year, eventually deciding to stagger school starting times to decrease traffic in any one period.But really we were just applying a band-aid to the problem, Mallove said. Then, one rainy day in 1999, Mallove was nearing Wilkes when she saw a sight she had dreaded but half-expected. Overturned in the road was a small blue bicycle surrounded by fire engines, police cars and an ambulance.It was in the school zone, Mallove said. I heard that driver was going 40. It was so fortunate that that child wasn't killed. I thought, 'We shouldn't wait for a tragedy here, to act.'She resumed the Parents for Safe School Zones movement. And she read an October 2000 story in the Review on safety issues around Blakely School, and called Susan Brink, a parent and activist there.Then when they approached the city, Councilman Merrill Robison told them they needed to do their homework, like the seniors if they wanted to be effective advocates on the issue.Robison cited the work of senior citizens who tackled downtown pedestrian safety problems by videotaping intersections and doing their own traffic counts. So I contacted the seniors, Mallove said, and they offered support and advice. It was a community effort. In July 2000, Mallove enlisted Councilwoman Christine Nasser. She had addressed traffic safety in her campaign literature, Mallove said, She was responsive right away And the time was right. The parents were getting to the point where it wasn't just Wilkes that was the focus.Nasser brought them together with police, public works and school district officials to tackle the problem. In the past, Parents for Safe School Zones had relied on anecdotal evidence that islanders were driving too fast near schools. Now they approached the issue systematically, seeking hard data through a formal study. Last fall, a consultant was hired to do a school zone study. The results showed that the island had a significant speeding problem within designated school zones, with 61 percent of drivers exceeding the posted limit.The report recommended consistent signage - for example, End of School Zone signs should be placed at the same distance from a crosswalk at each school site. Covering signs during summer vacation and use of reflective signs were suggested, to prevent them from blending into motorists' familiar landscape. Improved signage that went up around schools reflects the advocates' success.This is a safety issue, but in the broadest sense, one could also call it a livability issue, Mallove said. We're tring to strike a balance between pedestrian and vehicular traffic. "