School Zone Safety: Keeping an Eye Out for the Kids

Yellow school crossing road sign against bright blue sky.

As children return to school, we all have a responsibility to be more watchful on the roads.

The Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) found that children aged 14 and under are the most at-risk pedestrian group. While the number of pedestrian deaths and injuries decreased in 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions, 10 pedestrians were killed and 47 seriously injured in Toronto so far this year. That compares with 21 pedestrian deaths one year ago.

Driving defensively and observing the rules of the road, particularly in school zones, helps keep everyone safe. Distracted driving is a particular concern around school zones, and you can expect the police to be vigilant in those areas as school resumes, in addition to the automated speed enforcement cameras that are in community safety zones across Toronto. In the first month of operation, beginning July 6, 2020, a total of 22,031 speeding fines were issued as a result of the cameras.

It is worth noting driving infractions committed in a school zone can substantially increase your car insurance rates in Ontario. Traffic violations such as improperly passing a school bus, failing to obey a school crossing sign or speeding/passing in a school zone are considered major convictions. Depending on your insurance company, major convictions can increase your insurance premiums by 15% or more for a first offence and 25% or more for subsequent offences.

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Here are nine essential safety rules to keep in mind when driving on or near school property this fall:

1. Always stop for a school bus when the lights are flashing

In Ontario alone, nearly a million children travel by school bus every day. Children have a limited sense of danger and are often excited and energetic when getting on or off a school bus. Watch out for children who may dart out from between stopped school buses or parked cars. Do not obstruct a school bus loading zone and be patient as children get on and off the bus.

Motorists travelling in both directions are required to stop for a school bus when its red lights are flashing and the stop arm is out. Failing to stop for a school bus carries with it a fine of up to $2,000 and six demerit points for a first-time offence.

2. Observe the posted speed limits

It’s essential to slow down as you approach a school zone and watch for children who may run out into harm’s way. Posted speed limits in school zones are typically either 30km/hr or 40km/hr. Travelling at a slower speed gives drivers time to stop in case children are crossing the road unexpectedly. Playground zones have the same speed limits and are in effect from dawn until dusk each day.

According to the World Health Organization, a pedestrian has a 90% chance of survival if hit by a car travelling at 30 km/h or slower, but less than 50% chance of surviving an impact when the vehicle is going 45 km/h.

Children may be active at various times throughout the day for recess or field trips, so you need to be careful when driving in school zones.

3. Use designated stopping areas only

Respect your school’s posted pick-up and drop-off areas to avoid creating unnecessary traffic congestion and unsafe conditions. That includes respecting “No Parking” and “No Stopping” zones.

By parking or stopping illegally, you will create unsafe conditions for those around you, impacting visibility, traffic flow, and compromising safe zones. It is not just inconvenient to other road users; it is dangerous.

4. Always obey the crossing guard

Children expect crossing guards will only allow them to cross the street if it is safe, so disregarding a crossing guard’s instructions can have serious consequences.

School crossing guards are legally permitted to stop traffic (with their stop sign) and assist school children crossing the street. Obeying the crossing guard is not optional. All vehicles must come to a complete stop and remain stopped until the children — and the crossing guard — are safely off the road.

5. Do not pass other vehicles in a school zone

Attempting to pass another vehicle is prohibited in school zones. When passing other vehicles, you may be travelling quickly, and your overall visibility is reduced.

Similarly, you should not perform a U-turn, three-point turn, or drive in reverse in a school zone if you can avoid it. Any unpredictable driving manoeuvre may cause or contribute to a collision.

6. Avoid driving into the school parking lot

School parking lots tend to be very congested, especially at designated school pick-up and drop-off times. Increased traffic means an increased likelihood of accidents. It’s safer for everyone if you park across the street and use the crosswalk to get to school property.

7. Expect the unexpected

Children are unpredictable and can run out into traffic at any time. Keep an eye out as you approach a school zone and prepare for children to step onto the road unexpectedly.

8. Share the road with cyclists

Some kids will ride a bike to school, which can create problems for drivers since they cannot determine traffic conditions properly. Whenever passing a cyclist, proceed slowly, and leave a few feet between your vehicle and them. Also, whether you are turning right or left and a child on a bike is approaching, wait for them to pass you or go through the intersection first. Be extra vigilant in school zones and residential areas to watch for kids on bikes.

9. Teach your children the rules of traffic safety and school bus etiquette

You can help keep your children safe by teaching them the rules of the road.

Children should stay well away from any streets and the school parking lot while they are at school. Crossing the street only at designated crosswalks, under the supervision of an adult (ideally a crossing guard), is key to reduce the likelihood that your child might be hit.

Teach your children to use the sidewalk whenever possible, look both ways before crossing any street, and pay attention to where they are going. This is especially important for kids who are old enough to have their cellphone, for instance, and might be distracted by it while crossing the road.

If your child rides a bike to school, ensure they wear a fitted helmet and securely fasten the chin strap. Talk to them about the rules of the road as a cyclist, the importance of staying in a bike lane whenever possible, and never using an electronic device while riding.

If your child takes the school bus, teach them to respect the school bus driver. They should always remain seated while on the bus and refrain from distracting conduct, such as throwing things or yelling. They should line up for the school bus at least five steps back from the road in a single file line to wait for the bus and remain there until the bus has come to a complete stop and the doors are open before moving forward. When dismounting the bus, children should always walk (rather than run) and be careful if they need to cross the street. They should never cross between parked cars.

Being a cautious driver in school zones should be a top priority. Plus, it has the added benefit of helping you maintain a safe driving record, which is the single most helpful way to get a low car insurance premium.