Every morning, Raymer Elementary School parent Deannie Zahara goes through the school routine: Getting her three kids up and ready for school, packing lunches and heading out the door as they walk to the nearby school.
But as her daughters have aged—they are in Grades 4, 2 and 1—they have increasingly been asking to walk to school alone, exhibiting increasing independence.
And while one of them does walk on her own now, leaving early and arriving at school by 8 a.m.—walking before legislated school zone speed limits come into play at 8 a.m.—Zahara is concerned with her kids’ safety. Like many schools, the area around Raymer Elementary has grown and developed. At Raymer, businesses surround the 55-year-old school with cars and trucks busily on the commute.
“My daughter loves to walk to school on her own and I’ve just started giving her that extra sense of freedom,” said Zahara. “It makes her really proud. I’ve taught my kids pedestrian safety and how to be responsible: Stop, look and listen; make eye contact; just because you see them doesn’t mean they see you. But it doesn’t always stick. It feels like motorists view pedestrians as obstacles not as shared users and I think people have a right to feel safe and walk without fear.”
To try and help the problem Zahara and the Parent Advisory Council partnered with the City of Kelowna to take part in a program called Smart Trips. Students produced traffic safety and transportation-inspired artwork and 10 projects were chosen and produced into signs displayed around the school, promoting safety. That dovetailed into Raymer being selected to participate in the City of Kelowna’s Clean Air and Safe Routes 4 School initiative.
One part of the initiative was a two-day traffic study in May of this year where volunteers watched the activities of cars and pedestrians at both drop-off and pick-up times at Raymer.
For 30 minutes between 8:10 and 8:40 a.m. 85 cars were witnessed speeding though school zones while that number rose to 130 between 2:10 and 2:40 p.m. Not helping safety, dozens of jay-walkers were also noted.
Central Okanagan School Board chair Moyra Baxter is certainly familiar with issues around speeding in school zones and specifically at Raymer Elementary. Baxter’s children attended Raymer when the school was surrounded by houses instead of businesses and she even went to Kelowna City Council to lobby for a traffic light at Raymer and Richter.
Years later, as the Central Okanagan has grown, so too have the issues surrounding safety in school zones, especially schools located in busy areas and on main traffic routes.
“I think it’s an issue at every school,” said Baxter. “It seems there is always someone who forgets or doesn’t realize they are in a school zone. We have a safe walk to school program which is trying to get students walking on sidewalks. I think the big thing is if people are abiding by the school zone speed limit it slows them down to such a speed that they are aware of what’s going on when kids are on the road.”
At this week’s Central Okanagan School Board meeting trustees took a step to better protect students in school zones. The board passed a motion to alter the start of the school zone speed limit to 7:30 a.m. from the current 8 a.m. and will request the change of municipalities and/or the provincial government.
“We have a lot of our elementary schools starting at 8:30 and some of these kids are getting to school early. It just seems like there are children on the road before the speed zone comes into effect.”
The school board will send a letter to local municipalities or the Ministry of Transportation, depending on the governing body for each of its schools with the request.
In the meantime at Raymer, the school is also taking part in a School Travel Planning program aimed at educating parents and children about safety. Walk to School days will be held and walking groups will be set up on the defined best routes to school. An adult crossing guard has been added to assist students to cross streets safely and the plan will be re-evaluated in 2016.
For parent Zahara, it’s progress on an issue that means a lot to her and the other parents at the school. But she still says motorists need to be the ones to slow down.
“Even with all these great initiatives that we have been fortunate to implement there is still a shocking amount of motorists that speed through the school zones,” she said. “We need to be better motorists to protect vulnerable road users.”