By Kevin O’Rourke
As students and parents around Germantown and the world observe International Walk to School Day, the reality of a congested and hurried life in the 21st Century reveals that there are dangers even in something as simple as walking to school.
Yesterday, two students were struck by a vehicle while crossing Clopper Road at the corner of Kingview Road as they walked to Kingsview Middle School. Luckily the two girls received only minor injuries are doing well, according to Kingsview Principal Jimmy D’Andrea who was at the intersection this morning ensuring that all walkers were safe as they came to school.
The incident, coming on the eve of International Walk to School Day, spotlights the need for drivers and pedestrians to make sure they are alert and focused on their way to school and work.
The students being struck yesterday drew the attention of Montgomery County Council President Craig Rice, who resides in the neighborhood surrounding Kingsview Middle School. Rice was at Kingsview Wednesday morning to support the local students as they walked to school and urge drivers and pedestrians to be more mindful of their surroundings.
“We cannot say this loud enough, or often enough, but when young bodies meet moving vehicles, the young bodies always lose,” said Rice. “Protecting our children carries responsibility on both sides. Students must discard all distractions when they are walking and spend all of their concentration on the vehicles around them. And drivers, even when they are following traffic laws, must anticipate that young students too often are distracted, so they must pay extra attention when driving around schools.”
On Sept. 17, members of the County Council and Montgomery County Department of Transportation, in partnership with Montgomery County Public Schools gathered at Seneca Valley High School to launch the #YOLOwalksafe program to raise awareness among teenagers of the risks of distracted walking and other dangerous pedestrian behaviors.
Since that launch, there have been two notable instances where students were struck by vehicles near schools in Germantown. One took place outside of Seneca Valley High School on the evening after the launch of the YOLOwalksafe program, as a female student sustained minor injuries while crossing the street at Middlebrook Road and Crystal Rock Road. And the second, was yesterday near Kingsview Middle School. Police investigations into the incidents have shown in both cases that it was not the students, but the drivers who were at fault by not yielding to the pedestrians in the street.
These two incidents highlight the larger problem in Montgomery County when it comes to pedestrian safety. Each year more than 400 crashes involving pedestrians occur on Montgomery County roadways. According to Safe Kids Worldwide, teens ages 15 through 19 make up half of all underage pedestrian fatalities. And in Montgomery County, in cases when pedestrians are found to be at fault in collisions, they are most often teens in this age group.
The incident at Clopper Road and Kingsview Road could be avoided in the future if the traffic lights at the intersection can being adjusted to allow more time for pedestrians to cross and traffic is halted in all directions, said Rice.
Currently, the walk signal allowing pedestrians to cross Clopper Road runs concurrent with a green light allowing traffic to turn left onto Clopper Road from Kingsview Road. Drivers should yield to any pedestrian at that time, but at rush hour, yield is often not in a commuter’s vocabulary and pedestrians are put at risk.
The solution, according to Capt. Thomas Didone, the Director of MCPD’s Traffic Division, is to keep all traffic lights red for six to eight seconds while the pedestrians cross Clopper Road, ensuring that all traffic is stopped.
“A standing red light is just as good as a crossing guard in this situation,” said Rice. “Six or eight seconds would give the students and pedestrians enough time to safely cross that street.”
Kim Summers, president of the Kingsview Middle Parent Teachers Student Association, said the intersection at Clopper Road has been on the mind of parents for some time. “It has always been a concern, because of the traffic volume on a major artery road when you have kids that are 11-, 12-, and 13-years-old being responsible to cross the road.” Summers said that while adjusting the light would be a welcome improvement she would also like to see a crossing guard at the intersection.
“We really need to be advocating for a safer cross here.” Summers said that while she usually drives her children to school, she would be more willing to allow them to walk if there was a crossing guard at the intersection.
Didone explained that in the past, the Kingsview Middle School community has requested a crossing guard to be stationed at the intersection, but the amount of foot-traffic did not warrant a crossing guard. “We did an assessment of the intersection in the past and there are so few kids that use this intersection, it would be overkill in this situation,” said Didone. He added that there were less than a dozen students crossing Clopper Road at Kingview Road. Diddone said there here were up to 50 other intersections in the county with similar issues, where there were not enough students to justify a full-time, paid crossing guard but with a handful of students crossing heavily trafficked roads.
While the school, the County, and MCPD all agree on a possible solution to the problem at the intersection, the ultimate control of the traffic signals falls to the State of Maryland, since Clopper Road is State Highway 117. “We have to make strong push to our State Highway Administration in coordination with our Montgomery County Department of Transpiration, who assigns our walk routes, to make sure we are well coordinated in keeping our kids safe,” said Rice. “We have to ask our automobile drivers to watch out for kids, because the kids aren’t always going to make the right decisions. We have a duty and a responsibility to look out for them, even if we might think that we are in the right. We need to make sure that the routes that we are sending our kids are safe.”
Didone pointed to the County’s launch of the YoLowalksafe campaign as one way the county is trying to raise awareness of issues involving pedestrian safety “The program is teaching kids about safe crossing, and not to be distracted crossing, to use the signals and crosswalks,” said Didone.
The County’s YOLOwalksafe campaign includes a toolkit distributed to high schools. Inside the toolkit is an assortment of campaign posters, static clings to go on restroom mirrors, and a USB drive with other digital resources. The program hopes to use social media, especially Twitter, to remind teens to be aware while crossing potentially dangerous intersections by hi-jacking the slang acronym YOLO which has often been a rallying cry for participation in unsafe or unwise behavior and reminding teens that they do in-fact only life once.
The posters which all feature a teenager with tire tracks across part of their face have taglines which the creators hope will resonate with teens, such as, "If you text, you're next," or "That song is to die for" and "A smart phone can man you do stupid things" and, "Don't be caught dead wearing black." The taglines hope to hit home with teens not to have earbuds in their ears, and not to wear dark clothing early on winter mornings, and don't text or read Twitter or Facebook as you walk to and from school.
“It does not matter where to place the official blame when a young walker is hit by a vehicle. The sure thing is that the student will be injured,” said Rice. “So we will celebrate Walk to School Day this year by not only emphasizing the health benefits of walking to neighborhood schools, but also the need to make sure our walkers remain safe.”
Top: Kingsview Middle School students cross Clopper Road on their way to school on Wednesday as International Walk to School is celebrated the day after two students were injured after being struck by a vehicle while crossing at the same intersection.
Next: Montgomery County Council President Craig Rice speaks to MCPD Director of Transportation Captain Thomas Didone as the observe students walking to Kingsview Middle School as part of International Walk to School Day.
Next: Parents and students cross Liberty Mill Road as walk to Germantown Elementary School with the assistance of crossing guards, at the intersection of Liberty Mill Road and Dawson Farm Road.
Photos by Germantown Pulse