School is back in session and signs are scattered across cities reminding drivers to use extra caution — but plenty of drivers ignore or become complacent toward the young people filling sidewalks and streets before and after school. Cities are employing new and improved tactics to raise awareness and boost school zone safety through both policy changes and technology upgrades.
Data indicates motorist-pedestrian collisions are on the rise in certain areas. Within school zones, the number of teen pedestrian deaths has increased 13% since 2013, according to data from the global nonprofit Safe Kids Worldwide. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) traffic accident data shows that both within and outside of school zones, pedestrian fatalities reached 5,987 in 2016, a 9% increase over 2015 and the highest number in more than 25 years.
Distracted driving is a leading cause of safety issues in school zones. Driving analytics company Zendrive examined that factor near more than 125,000 schools across the country in April. The study used cell phone sensors to determine if the more than 9 million individual drivers were making calls, texting or otherwise using their phones while their vehicle was in motion near schools.
Zendrive found 4.6 billion unsafe driving events and created a nationwide map ranking the safety of roads surrounding each school. Those in urban areas generally ranked as more dangerous than those in rural areas. The analysis highlights a point of major concern: Drivers did not reduce their potentially dangerous behaviors in 90% of the school zones.
Those datasets and others are the impetus for more cities adopting Vision Zero initiatives to reduce traffic deaths, and for implementing other policies that hone in on school zone safety.
Earlier this month, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo took emergency action the day before school started, reactivating school zone speed cameras after the state legislature let the law expire before leaving for summer break. De Blasio signed the law to authorize the use of the existing speed cameras in 140 school zones, in addition to expanding the use of cameras in another 150 school zones, saying the cameras have reduced school zone injuries by 17%.
Portland, OR — which this year lowered its speed limit from 25 to 20 miles per hour on residential streets as part of its Vision Zero campaign — installed automated speed cameras in school zones more than a decade ago to document and automatically send citations to speeding drivers. The city had extra police officers enforcing school zone speed laws at the start of school last month.
Savannah, GA police officers issued hundreds of tickets during the first couple weeks of school to drivers speeding through school zones. This year the city also upgraded its school zone flashing beacon signage to a connected, Internet of Things (IoT)-based system. It had used a pager-based system to set the times when beacons would flash for more than a decade. "Yes, pagers are still around," said Savannah Traffic Engineering Administrator Steve Henry. "We would hold our breath every year," worrying that the entire system would finally reach obsolescence.
At the time of its implementation, the pager system was state-of-the art in its ability program the school zone beacons from a central control. But the old software doesn't work with new operating systems so the city couldn't upgrade to current versions, or even add better virus and malware protections. Therefore, the previous beacon system had to work on its own closed network with no internet access.
Without two-way system communication to verify beacon functionality, city employees were dispatched to the field to physically check every report of a beacon malfunction or burned-out bulb.
The new cloud-based IoT system is connected to 59 individual beacons that are remotely programmable and provide feedback to the central system. Traffic engineers easily can see on a dashboard which locations are functioning correctly and which need maintenance. Authorized employees can access the system from the main control room, their offices or even on their phones.
"It allows us to take more of a proactive approach versus reactive … It not only prevents us from dispatching technicians for false calls, it will give us notice of failures that nobody has reported yet," Henry said.
He receives a digital notification if a beacon experiences a failure or if the system loses power. "Before we could go weeks or months" not knowing that a beacon lamp was out, Henry said. "Unless somebody reported it, we would be unaware until we would ride by that school zone when it was supposed to be active, in flashing mode … [The new system] gives us the ability to improve safety by reducing the amount of down time."
Columbus, OH also aims to increase school zone safety with connected technologies, but the concept incorporates emerging technology that still needs to be tested as part of its Connected Vehicle Environment (CVE) project.
Stakeholders had indicated that school zone speeding was an issue, and the city gathered data along two major corridors. "Over 80% of vehicles were observed traveling over the school zone speed limit during school zone hours," said Ryan Bollo, Smart Columbus project manager.
As part of the CVE, the city has a dedicated school zone application in the works to heighten driver awareness. Light duty vehicle operators will be the first to test it.
Once the pilot is active, connected vehicles will receive a message from roadside devices about approaching a school zone with an active speed restriction, and the driver is alerted to the reduced speed. "If the vehicle equipment determines the vehicle is traveling above the school zone speed limit, it issues a warning to the driver," Bollo said.
Columbus is preparing to launch the connected vehicle pilot in the coming months. Equipment installation — including roadside and on-board units — will begin next June, and the pilot is scheduled to begin in July 2020.
While Columbus’ school zone initiative will require more long-term testing and planning to get all of the sensors and connected devices up to speed, Savannah managed to get its IoT beacons installed and running quickly. Funding approval delays put the city "under the gun … to get [the beacons] installed before school started," Henry said. "I started to get nervous because I wanted to ensure we were ready for the next school year,” but once the devices were ordered “it was a quick process … and nearly all of them were installed after two days."
"Our number one priority is public safety," Henry said. "I think this is a great example of how we can use technology to improve safety at schools."