It’s easy to tell when fall is coming, by the arrival of pumpkins at farm stands, the addition of pumpkin spice to coffee house menus and the flashing of yellow lights in front of schools.
Those flashing lights should serve as more than just a reminder to slow down in school zones.
With so many children out walking to school and getting on and off school buses, drivers need to stay particularly alert now that school is back in session, local officials reminded the public during an event Friday, Sept. 8 at Watson Williams Elementary School in Utica with the Utica City School District, the City of Utica, the Oneida County Sheriff’s and AAA Northeast.
“You’ve got to make sure your eyes and your ears are looking for cars and bikes that may not be looking for you,” Utica Mayor Robert Palmiere told the students assembled in the school’s gym.
Everyone wants them grow up safely so that they can take on adult jobs, maybe even become the mayor or the superintendent, he said.
“You are going to be the future of a great city,” Palmieri predicted.
Parents play a huge role in protecting their kids, too, according to an analysis of nationwide traffic data, released Friday by AAA and car seat manufacturer Chicco USA. Nearly half of kids ages 10 and under who get injured in car crashes —48% and 51% of those killed — were either using a car seatbelt before they should have been or weren’t restrained at all, according to the analysis.
Between 2017 and 2021, 2,789 children in that age group died in car crashes, according to AAA and Chicco.
Oneida County Sheriff Rob Maciol pointed out that failing to slow down in school zones is just one thing drivers sometimes do that could endanger kids.
“Driver inattention is huge,” he said. “Speeding is huge. These are the main causes of crashes … Following too closely.”
The county started a program in the spring to try to cut down on another safety risk — drivers illegally passing stopped school buses with their lights flashing and their safety arms with a stop sign extended. So far 191 buses in nine districts have been outfitted with cameras that photograph cars passing stopped buses and then photograph their license plates as well.
The car’s owner, not the driver, receives a fine notice in the mail, with half the money raised going to manufacturer Verra Mobility, which installed the cameras for free, and half going to the sheriff’s operating budget.
The cameras didn’t launch until the end of the last school year, but over the summer, the sheriff’s office issued about $12,000 worth of fines to vehicles that passed summer school buses, Maciol said. That works out to about 60 violations given the $200 first-time offenders pay.
In the short term, the cameras should catch a lot of violations, Maciol said. In the long run, though, he thinks it will help to prevent the problem, lowering the revenue stream but keeping kids safer, he said.
And in time, the program will yield location data that will help the sheriff’s office identify hot spots and to look for solutions to de-fuse those areas where cars most frequently pass buses, Maciol said.
As a small city school district, Utica isn’t eligible to join the county’s program under state law. But city leaders have discussed passing legislation to create a program in the city, Palmieri said.
After other students returned to their classrooms, some members of the school’s safety patrol, wearing fluorescent harnesses that said AAA Safety Patrol stayed behind, getting a pep talk from Palmieri, a former member of the safety patrol at the Blessed Sacrament School.
The patrol program, which is under the direction of teacher Lisa Rodriguez, posts fifth and sixth graders in the school hallways to make sure they are obeying the rules.
Sixth-grade monitor Ella Yager, 11, said she recently wrote up some students for walking around the same loop for about 10 minutes. And monitor Trina Connor, 11, also a sixth grader, said she occasionally sees bad behavior.
“There’s a lot of kids that like to run, maybe jump, down the stairs,” she said.
Ella joined the patrol last year, just like her big sister had done. “I always saw her and I thought she was so cool,” Ella said.
Trina is a bit more like Palmieri, seeing the patrol as a possible first step toward greatness. “I joined,” she said, “because I thought I could be a great leader someday.”