Student Safety first
LAST week brought what every child dreads: September and a return to school. After three long months of freedom for thousands of children, September means a return to homework, double maths and hours staring at the clock willing the minutes to pass quickly.
But students aren’t the only ones who dread this time of year. After months of clear roads, the return to school also sees the return of traffic chaos in many of the country’s towns.
Motorists who had become accustomed to flowing through towns in the morning and evening are now facing the frustration of facing lines of stationary cars and going no-where fast. The reason for this sudden hold-up in traffic is parents dropping their young and not so-young children at the gates of their respective schools. Many of the parents only have a short distance to travel but insist on bringing the car and thus make up a large percentage of the rush-hour traffic.
For many parents the reason for driving their children to school is a safety one: the fear of their child being hurt on their way if they walk or cycle. The Road Safety Officer with Mayo County Council, Mr Noel Gibbons, understands the dangers and concerns of parents, but feels that driving children to school does not decrease the safety risks. He points out that, statistically, you are more likely to be killed in a car than while cycling or walking and believes that education is the key to using different modes of transport. He feels that with fewer cars on the road it would be safer for the students to walk to school.
“We would see a huge increase in the volume of traffic between half eight and half nine in the morning and again at in the afternoon at about half three. It is a natural instinct to drive but it is not the best option. It increases the volume of traffic and in turn increases the dangers on the roads. The less driving, the less traffic and this would allow students to walk or cycle safely to school.
“At the Council we would emphasise another mode of transport - a greener mode of transport. If the student is educated on the dangers and rules of the road, they will walk and cycle more and it will work in their favour. They will have more energy when they are going to school and in the classroom,” he explained.
Noel admits that the Council cannot force parents to change, but says they could put in place procedures where it would be favourable for them to allow their child to walk or cycle to school, provided that motorists show respect to cyclists and pedestrians alike.In the UK there has been a comprehensive campaign, involving the media, to encourage parents and children to walk rather than be driven to school. Among the initiatives used was the organisation of ‘walking buses’, where parents in estates were asked to nominate two parents each week to accompany up to 20 pupils to their school every day. The ‘walking bus’ scheme is now widespread in Britain and, after initial trial runs in Dublin, it is hoped it will become a feature all around this country too.One school which is adopting a novel approach of its own to the problem of traffic congestion outside school gates is Mount St Michael Secondary school in Claremorris. An area around the school has been set aside as a no-vehicle access area, except for teachers accessing their car park. A traffic barrier will be in operation restricting access, and set down areas will be marked where students can be dropped off.The principal of Mount St Michael, Fionnghuala King, felt with the increased volume of traffic the health and safety of the students was at risk and closing off access to the secondary school was the only alternative.“It has been a health and safety issue for quite some time and barriers and slow signs have been in place for nearly eight years, so it was obviously talked of back then,” she explained. “With the increased volume of traffic we were running the daily risk of an accident. There are school buildings on the left and right of the road and cars are passing through all day. At the end of the day the risk of a student getting injured was too great to ignore.
“We sought advice from the safety officer and we looked at whether to reduce or eliminate the traffic altogether. We toyed with the idea and decided to erect the barriers and close off access to the secondary school. We talked with the parents’ association about it and the change may be inconvenient for some at first but when it comes to health and safety of the students no one can say they are put out.”
While there have been calls for more students to walk and cycle to school, Fionnghuala cannot see any change on that front unless attitudes change in the future. In fact up to 18 students in Mount St Michael have informed the school of their intention to drive to school this year.
“Only the tiniest minority walk to school and nobody cycles. On the continent, cyclists are respected and they have cycle lanes, but it is not the same here and I cannot see it changing,” she said.
Ireland as a nation has become obsessed with travelling by car no matter what the distance. There have been numerous campaigns to get people out of the car and using alternative modes of transport. For many the car offers a sense of independence and security and these attitudes will never change, it is assumed. Then, the same thing was said about the smoking ban and the plastic bag levy but once people realised the benefits, both were embraced.