Drivers trying to avoid traffic on freeways routinely take shortcuts to side streets. It’s common to see cars zoom down these streets well above the speed limit. Speeding is risky as it is, but it’s more alarming when that behavior spills over into school zones.
Southeast Webster Road in front of Bilquist Elementary School in Milwaukie is a good case study of this problem.
Clackamas County Sheriff's Deputy Jodi Westerman regularly patrols Webster Road as children arrive to school in the mornings, and go home in the afternoons.
On a recent afternoon Westerman stopped two drivers within 30 minutes: one for speeding over 40 miles per hour; another for not stopping for a pedestrian.
“Thirty percent of the [email] complaints that we get are in a school zone or near a school zone,” said Clackamas Jodi Westerman, a Clackamas County Sheriff's deputy in the traffic unit.
“Thirty percent of the [email] complaints that we get are in a school zone or near a school zone,” said Westerman, who has worked in the traffic unit for 17 years.
Schools and parents regularly ask the sheriff’s department to help enforce speed limits.
“There are four of us now that patrol the school areas, whether it's in the metro urban growth boundary all the way out to the rural areas,” Westerman said. “We split it up. Everybody takes a different school.”
Westerman heads out on her motorcycle to Alder Creek Middle School a mile away after patrolling the school zone at Bilquist. She said drivers often want to pass other cars without regard for the children and school buses in that area.
“There’s heavy, heavy traffic there, and people are doing 30, 40 miles an hour,” Westerman said. “And these kids are walking in the bike lane because there's no other place to walk. So I am very busy there, too.”
Safe Routes to School programs consider this enforcement a key feature of keeping children safe on their treks to and from schools.
Enforcing speed limits, whether by police or sheriff departments, takes place in almost every school district in the greater Portland area, according to a report assessing the state of safe routes to school in greater Portland.
Milwaukie resident Elizabeth Avery lives two blocks away from Bilquist, where her children go to school.
The presence of sheriff's deputies “gives drivers more of a push to pay attention and not speed through school zones,” Avery said as she was walking her children home from school. “I've seen a couple of kids nearly get hit here. One kid was by himself on his bike.”
"Flags out, flags in"
“We don’t always have people who catch the school zone signs,” said Principal Charles Foote during an interview in his office. “So safety is a big concern.”
Foote said the school’s own safety patrol program, with adult and student crossing guards, is more important than ever with increasing traffic along Webster Road.
For more than 20 years, the school’s head custodian has volunteered as the crossing guard.
Across the street from where Westerman usually watches drivers, Richard Large supervises two student crossing guards every morning and afternoon.
“I enjoy it more and more every year,” Large said. “I feel that I make a big difference in the community and in the kids’ lives, making sure that they are safe.”
Kids and parents cross the street greeting Large and the student volunteers. Others honk and wave from their cars.
“Flags out,” Large says as a student on each side of Webster Road inches out a large yellow flag before walking onto the road to help people walk safely across the street. “Flags in.”
A crossing guard volunteer at Bilquist Elementary School, fifth grader Liliana Martinez said it would be tricky for people to cross the street without crossing guards because cars are going fast in both directions.
Fifth grader Liliana Martinez, who volunteers as a crossing guard, said it would be tricky for people to cross the street without their help because cars are going fast in both directions.
In 1961, the Oregon legislature gave schools the authority to create and operate school traffic patrol programs, such as the one at Bilquist.
The programs look different at each school depending on how they’ve set it up, according to Nicole Perry, who does outreach for the Safe Routes to School program in Clackamas County.
The combination of law enforcement and crossing guard programs is ideal, Perry said, “because then you’ve got things covered” both throughout a district and at specific crossings.
"They’re just kids"
Crossing guards help keep children safe, but it’s another way to teach volunteer students important safety and leadership skills, Large said.
School officials start recruiting fourth graders at the end of the school year to sign up to be crossing guards during fifth grade.
“They sign a commitment that they are going to do it on a rotating weekly schedule,” Foote said. “We also do a training provided by the state for safety patrol…making sure the kids have a good perspective on why we have to be super safe out there along the streets. So we feel that's a good training for our kids to be involved.”
Avery also appreciates the daily presence of crossing guards.
“They'll tell my kids when to stop, and they go out in the crosswalk first with their flags,” Avery said. “But do cars take the initiative to stop? If the crossing guards are not out there, the cars will just keep going. They don't want to stop.”
“Yeah, kids are distracted and that’s their right,” said Milwaukie resident Elizabeth Avery, who lives within a school zone where people often drive above the speed limit. “...We need to be more on top of it as adults than they are.”
Over the past 20 years, the rate of children ages 19 and under who have been killed while walking has decreased. But recent years have seen a 13 percent increase in the death rate for 12- to 19-year-olds, according to a 2016 study by Safe Kids Worldwide, a child safety advocacy organization.
The report cites distracted driving and walking.
Yeah, kids are distracted and that’s their right,” Avery said. “They’re just kids. Yes, they need to learn, but at the same time we need to let our kids be kids. We need to be more on top of it, as adults, than they are.”
“Understand that you are projecting a large object, between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds, down the roadway and it can hurt somebody,” Westerman said.
Some children may not have a choice about what route to take to school and how to get there. But people behind the wheel always have a choice about how to drive.
Take the next step
Ask your local neighborhood schools if they need crossing guard volunteers to help children and their families safely cross streets.
Want to help kids in your community (or family) walk, bike and take transit more? Sign up for the Safe Routes to School Network to stay updated and find out what other parents, teachers and Safe Routes to School coordinators are doing across greater Portland.
Want to learn more about Safe Routes region-wide? Read the report: