It's Time to Stop Prioritizing Cars Over Kids

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How many crushings or deaths will it take for a school to realize that large moving vehicles and small kids on foot are not meant to mingle in the same confined space?

A text message came in from my kids' school last week. It read:

"A reminder to be alert and aware when driving through the student drop-off/parent parking lot. We have had 3 near misses this year! Avoid distracted driving by kindly staying off devices while driving in the parking lot to ensure the safety of all. Thank you!"

While the message was well-intentioned, it left me feeling angry. My own toddler had a near miss several months ago in that same parking lot, and to think that there have been even more incidents similar to that one is horrifying, especially in light of the little girl who was crushed between two cars at school pickup earlier this year in Toronto. But even more upsetting was that the school's only official response to three "near misses" is this text message -- an utterly inadequate way of handling what I view as a very serious problem.
I cannot help but ask: How many near misses will it take to fix the congested nightmare that is the school parking lot? Do we need 10, 20, 50 close calls? How about a hospitalization, or a crushing incident? Is it going to take a death? But even then would it change the passive acceptance that, for some insane reason, cars have more of a right to approach the school than children do to safety?

While thinking about it, I came up with an analogy, likening cars to guns. Consider if there had been three accidental discharges of weapons inside the school this year, but no injuries. Imagine getting a message from the school saying, "Please be sure not to pull triggers!" The statistics for kids getting injured by guns and injured by cars in parking lots in the U.S. aren't all that far off -- 7,000 a year for the former, 5,000 a year for the latter.

Then I got thinking about peanuts and the board-wide ban on all nut products. As a parent whose children have no allergies, I don't mind this at all, but it's an interesting example of how a school is willing to take serious action on something that threatens a few kids seriously, while completely ignoring another threat that, arguably, puts more children at risk.

Meanwhile, five thousand children die every year in the U.S. in parking lot accidents. (Canadian data is not so clear: 7,200 children between ages 5-14 died or were injured by cars in 2010, and pedestrians comprise 13 percent of traffic fatalities for all ages.) These kids are not occupants in cars, but are rather struck by backward- and forward-moving vehicles or crushed between driverless vehicles.

Making the problem worse is the fact that the majority of vehicles in Canadian and American school parking lots are big. Parents in my affluent rural town like to drive huge SUVs and minivans. Sure, they're comfortable, but they're also deadly. These vehicles, known as LTVs (Light Trucks and Vans), are not required to meet the pedestrian safety and visibility standards that smaller cars are; and pickup trucks, another common sight in our town, are three times as deadly as cars because they're essentially a wall of steel. A child struck by a vehicle like this is pretty much guaranteed a visit to the hospital. As Naomi Buck wrote for the Globe and Mail a couple years back,

"A pedestrian hit by a passenger car will, with luck (a relative term), be struck in the legs and sent over the hood. An LTV will probably strike a pedestrian with its blunt hood – for adults, at the level of the torso, home of the vital organs; for kids, the level of the head. The LTV will then knock 65 per cent of adults and 93 per cent of children to the ground, where they have a good chance of being run over."

To think that a small child stands a chance in an encounter with one of these is lunacy! So, why does the school fail to view three near misses as a real risk that must be addressed? What prevents it from taking swift and decisive action, opting instead for a weak and oddly cheery warning?

I believe it comes down to convenience and collective cultural worship of the car. North Americans view car ownership as a god-given right, and anything that impedes their ability to pull those vehicles up as close as physically possible to their final destination is viewed with suspicion.

We know exactly what would work to ensure greater safety for children, but administrators and parents do not want to say it for fear of the backlash. Just last week, my colleague Lloyd cited an eye-opening comment from the city of Waterloo, Ontario's Transportation and Environmental Services commissioner, discussing how to reduce pedestrian deaths:

"There are things we can do for safety that would quickly reduce the number of collisions, but would be extremely inconvenient for people... I would love to be able to eliminate deaths and serious injuries, but doing that may have some side effects that people don't like as much."

As Lloyd analyzed it, "These side effects include slowing drivers down through road design, as well as serious enforcement and education, all of which are objectionable to drivers in a hurry."

Therein lies the tragic issue. Parents dropping kids off and picking them up at school are in a hurry. They don't want to have to walk several blocks from a parking spot to get their kid, nor do they want to let their kid be unaccompanied for those same blocks. So they drive right up the gate, circling and reversing their beastly SUVs in fume-expelling hordes -- and the school lets them do it, justifying it with all sorts of legalese about not being able to take responsibility for a child until they're on school property, etc. -- and someday, someone's child will die because of it.

To paraphrase a tweet I saw, "Isn't it sad that not killing people [read: injuring little kids] is so terribly inconvenient?"

What would I like to see? I have a dozen ideas for what could change that parking lot for the better, all of which I've sent to the school administrators in the past. Anything -- from a kiss-and-ride program, to walk or bike to school campaigns, to closing off the parking lot during peak drop-off hours and requiring cars to park along residential streets (which are much better designed for small child safety than a parking lot, even if they do require one to walk longer distances) -- would be an improvement over what we have right now, but strangely the school doesn't see this as its own responsibility. When one parent tried to organize a kiss-and-ride program on her own, the school supported it in theory but was unable to provide any resources; the program would need to rely entirely on volunteer parents, which is unsustainable over the long term.

But really, where we need to start is with acknowledging the severity of those three misses, and not brushing them off as reasonable side-effects of our car-obsessed culture. They need to be spoken of with fear and dread; we need to think of them as tragedies that were mercifully averted, as incidents that must never, ever be repeated. We need to imagine our own children dying in those situations and ask ourselves what we might wish we'd done differently before it all unraveled.

Three near misses is three too many, just as three school shootings or three deaths by peanuts would be, too. We cannot desist from action simply because people's beloved cars are the perpetrators. It's time to change the narrative, to refuse to accept the dominance of dangerous cars in zones that should be safer, to feel rage at the threat to our most vulnerable humans.