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Small changes can make walking to school safer

Montgomery County could do a lot to make walking to school safer and more convenient, and at little cost. All it takes is a few changes to the law, signs and paint, and retiming some traffic signals.

Photo by The Tire Zoo on Flickr.

These are the recommendations from the Safe Walk to School campaign, which launched last week. The Action Committee for Transit, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, the mother of a high school student killed while walking to school last October, and others started the campaign because walking to and from school in Montgomery County can be hazardous.

In this school year alone, at least 8 kids and one parent have been struck by cars:

Unsafe walks to school cost Montgomery County residents millions of dollars a year. Montgomery County Public Schools must provide "hazard busing" for children who live within walking distance of school but can't walk there safely. Parents driving children to and from school adds meaningfully to traffic congestion. Children who don't walk to school experience decreased physical activity and mental well-being. And the air pollution from school-related car trips contributes to asthma and premature deaths.

To make walking to and from school safer for children in Montgomery County, the Safe Walk to School campaign calls on the Montgomery County Department of Transportion (MCDOT) to take the following low-cost but effective steps:

Expand school zones: Amend the county's criteria for school zones to include all county roads within a half-mile radius of a school. This would allow MCDOT to reduce speed limits and increase fines on roads near schools.

Lower speeds and limit unsafe right turns: Change the following rules in the amended school zones and post new signs to inform drivers:

  • Establish a maximum speed limit of 20 miles per hour during school hours, including arrival and dismissal. This could decrease the risk of child pedestrian crashes by up to 70%.
  • Double the fines for speeding violations, to motivate drivers to slow down.
  • Prohibit right turns on red during school hours to reduce conflicts between pedestrians and drivers at traffic signals.
The engineering cost would be about $350 per sign, including installation. (For comparison, the estimated cost in 2011 of the 1.62-mile Montrose Parkway East project was $120 million. That's equivalent to the cost of roughly 340,000 signs.)

Retime traffic signals: Change traffic signal timing in the amended school zones in the following ways, to make it safer for pedestrians of all ages to cross the street:

  • Put in leading pedestrian intervals for traffic signals at intersections where at least one of the roads is an arterial, to allow walkers to get a head start crossing busy streets.
  • Use a walking speed of 2.5 feet per second to calculate the minimum pedestrian clearance interval, to give everyone, including children and adults pushing strollers, sufficient time to cross.
  • Have the walk signal appear during every signal cycle during school hours at intersections with traffic signals, without pedestrians having to push a button. This can be done either by putting the signals in pedestrian "recall" during school hours (including arrival and dismissal) or by removing the pedestrian pushbuttons altogether.
  • Shorten traffic signals during school hours (including arrival and dismissal) so kids don't have to wait longer than 40 seconds for a walk signal on any leg of an intersection. This would lead more pedestrians to wait for the walk signal to cross.
The engineering cost for retiming the traffic signals would be about $3,500 per intersection. (For comparison, the estimated $120 million cost to build Montrose Parkway East would be equivalent to the cost of retiming roughly 34,000 signals.)

Change road markings: Add paint to the pavement in school zones in the following ways:

  • Mark all crosswalks with a "ladder" or "zebra" crosswalk, using material embedded with retroreflective glass beads. This increases the visibility of crosswalks, raising driver awareness and encouraging pedestrians to cross at crosswalks.
  • Narrow traffic lanes to 10 feet, to reduce vehicle speeds, increase drivers' compliance with the 20 mph speed limits, and reduce the length of pedestrian crossings across traffic lanes.
Ladder crosswalks cost about $300, and lane restriping costs about $1,000 per mile. (For comparison, the estimated $120 million cost of Montrose Parkway East would be equivalent to the cost of roughly 400,000 crosswalks or 120,000 miles of lane restriping.)

Montgomery County says they support safe walks to school. To encourage them to show they mean it, go to and send an e-mail to the Montgomery County Council.

Miriam Schoenbaum lives in upcounty Montgomery County. She is a member of the Boyds Civic Association, the Boyds Historical Society, and the Action Committee for Transit


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Why care more about walking kids than other walkers?

Let's protect all walkers!

by Jasper on May 17, 2013 12:23 pm • linkreport


It's a sneaky tactic. If we can re-instill the fact that walking is so natural that even kids can do it on their way to school then we'll be able to soften up those who can't seem to grasp the idea that as long as they're behind the wheel they're in charge.

by drumz on May 17, 2013 12:41 pm • linkreport

I think it's a way to reach whole families by focusing on kids. Most adults are relatively set in their ways but if they are engaged in their children's lives this may be a way to get them to relate to the issue. Also I think in general most people are more protective of the safety of a child and feel less inclined to help another adult.

by Alan B. on May 17, 2013 12:44 pm • linkreport

This needs more than just signals, but some philosophical changes, starting with MoCo employees. School bus drivers that speed down my one lane residential street, Metro buses that speed down Grubb road, police captains that put the onus on pedestrians, and prosecutors who go soft on drivers who kill and maim. The recent sting was a start: how about doing one every day, at a different location.

by SJE on May 17, 2013 12:44 pm • linkreport

Why not build some sidewalks!!! The problem with Maryland/Montgomery county is that they play this pass the buck game becasue some roads are state highways and some county roads so no one is responsible for the safety of people who live and walk around both their roads. But I'm with Jasper. We talk a big game about obesity and health care costs but in general we are not building the kind of communities that foster healthy living. end of rant.

by Thayer-D on May 17, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

It's ironic how folks move out to the outer 'burbs supposedly for their kids, but it's not safe for kids to walk anywhere and they end up being prisoners of the back seat.

by Capt. Hilts on May 17, 2013 1:05 pm • linkreport

I think the author over-simplifies some of these fixes. For example, install No Turn on Red during school times - ha! Almost every signal in down-county is a no turn on red signal all of the time due to traffic volumes and pedestrian volumes, yet I still see no less than 4 cars per my 10 minute walk to work turn right on a red, frequently nearly hitting me in a crosswalk. Slowing down speed limits on ALL roads near school zones or tampering with signal cycles may have huge unintended consequences for traffic. Sure, if the road is adjacent to a school, or a known major crossing area, then maybe we should make sure it's as safe as it can be, but just because something is 1/2 a mile from a school (or more as she suggests) shouldn't default it for operation no go for cars.

There are some real issues with missing infrastructure and signage in parts of the County, but lets focus on fixing the gaps in the current standards before upping the standards.

by Gull on May 17, 2013 1:14 pm • linkreport

@Miriam-great article. Re: bullet point #3 under "Retime Traffic Lights": The walk signal should come on automatically everywhere every time the light changes. Always. W/o exception. I don't understand why it doesn't.

by Tina on May 17, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

@ Tina

Many traffic signals are not timed on their own to provide a long enough walk cycle. For example I walk through the intersection of Spring St and 16th Street every day. If I do not press the button to cross the street, the light is green only for as long as is needed to get the cars in que through the intersection, often just 10 seconds or less. If the pedestrian crossing button is pushed, about a 25 second cycle starts, with 7 seconds of solid "walk" and an 18 second count down to zero. At Zero, the light turns yellow for cars. 16th street is a very busy road, and pedestrian crossing at this signal is not regular, so traffic engineers see no reason to create a 25 second long cycle of a light that only needs 10 seconds to handle traffic volumes on the side street. Having through movement for 16th street is priority here. Most places that make you press a button to cross is for this very reason.

by Gull on May 17, 2013 2:12 pm • linkreport

@Jasper -If we make the built environment safe for the most vulnerable it will be safe for everyone else too. In this case the focus is on the youngest who are vulnerable. In other cases the focus is on our other vulnerable community members (e.g. in upper NW DC around Connecticut AVE & Nebraska/Chevy Chase where there is a lot of housing for seniors/older residents and near 13th & Upshur NW where there is housing for people w/ disabilities.)

by Tina on May 17, 2013 2:12 pm • linkreport

@Gull-thanks for the new info.

by Tina on May 17, 2013 2:14 pm • linkreport

What an excellent, persuasive article detailing how little it would take to make our streets so much safer for drivers, bikers, pedestrians and scooter-ers. I don't understand why street crossings, particularly near elementary schools, remain so dangerous. I don't want to penalize drivers through police "stings"--I'd like the crossings themselves to be more visible and safer at all times of day, whether or not the police are there.

I agree with Capt. Hilts above: many of us move to good neighborhoods with fine schools, only to find that we can't tell our children to go outside by themselves and play in the school's playground. I understand why some parents put their children on hazard buses: crossing the street can feel just too dangerous. The kids can't play on the playground after school--they have to pile into the buses, and once home they turn on a screen. Then we read about childhood obesity and screen addiction.
I hope the Department of Transportation, the police and the County Council read this post and act on it! Otherwise, there will be blood on the streets--literally--when Capital Bikeshare arrives in September.

by Wendy on May 17, 2013 2:20 pm • linkreport

Gull - MANY of the crossing signals in downtown, SS, are not long enough to get all the way across the street and I'm pretty fleet afoot. But they're especially too short if you are carrying something, pushing a stroller or have the hand of a child.

by Capt. Hilts on May 17, 2013 2:21 pm • linkreport

All are good ideas.

I would add one more: EDUCATE THE KIDS.

I was driving past Seneca Valley High School on the day young Christina Morris-Ward was killed and observed 2 high school-aged boys crossing in the middle of the block while wearing dark clothing at dusk. I knew better than that when I was 7.

Maybe it's the prevalence of school buses, or perhaps a flaw in the car-centric suburban culture, but many if not most kids don't know how to navigate on foot.

Some might accuse me of blaming the victims, but all the expanded school zones, signage, lane markers, lowered speed limits, traffic signals, etc. won't do much good if kids aren't taught to walk and cross the street safely.

by ceefer on May 17, 2013 2:24 pm • linkreport

I agree with @Capt. Hilts. Parents become taxi drivers; kids are beholden to their parents to go everywhere and are trapped in the car; the cycle reinforces itself and then no one walks. I've seen places that are really close to each other but you can't possibly walk from one to the other because of some impediment. It's really a shame. People need to get out of their cars. I can't imagine what all this time in cars is doing to these kids who are literally growing up in cars.

by dc denizen on May 17, 2013 2:38 pm • linkreport

Ceefer, YES! Educate kids! On the road is no time to rely on the kindness of strangers.

But crossing mid-block isn't necessarily more dangerous than at intersections. It's often safer because of the absence of turning vehicles and cars trying to beat the light. At least half of pedestrian deaths take place in marked intersections. So, everyone should be vigilant all the time - and that includes drivers!

by Capt. Hilts on May 17, 2013 2:41 pm • linkreport

I don't feel safe *in a car* on the roads around Seneca Valley HS.

by Ronit on May 17, 2013 2:57 pm • linkreport

@Miriam -something I would add:
Get rid of the acreage minimums for schools so in the future schools can be sited within residential areas where kids can more safely walk/bike to them than when schools are sited on the outskirts of communities so they can meet the acreage minimums.

The increased distance (from residential centers to schools) due to acreage minimums that began to be adopted in the 1970's is one of the factors contributing to the significant decrease in proportion of kids who walk/bike to school since 1969.

This study shows the levels of walking/biking with "distance" being the most commonly cited barrier.

by Tina on May 17, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

@Ceefer & Capt. Hilts:

Stop and look and listen,
When you go out to play.
Use your eyes before your feet,
You will come home safe that way!

We grew up with this in the 1970s. Maybe these classic PSAs could have a revival, as with Schoolhouse Rock.

by Matt O'Toole on May 17, 2013 11:23 pm • linkreport

@Ceefer and Matt O'Toole -- I think that everybody agrees that children need to know how to cross the street safely. On the other hand,

1. Children need practice in learning how to walk safely. They cannot get this practice if it's unsafe for them to walk.

2. Children and teenagers are not adults. Their perceptions of risk, judgments of speed and distance, and abilities to keep multiple things in mind at once are different from adults'.

3. Of the 6 incidents listed in my post, 2 occurred on sidewalks, 2 occurred while the children were walking with a parent, and 1 occurred to a baby in a stroller.

by Miriam on May 18, 2013 6:02 am • linkreport

@Tina -- Certainly acreage minimums are an issue, but in Montgomery County at least, as far as I can tell, accessibility for walking is now an official criterion for school siting. Which is good!

But walking distance, by itself, is not enough. Otherwise there wouldn't be so much hazard busing. MCPS buses elementary school students if they are over a mile away or if they have to cross a primary roadway (unless there is a crossing guard). Lots of MCPS elementary schools are within a mile of many of their students. But how many are within a mile AND the students don't have to cross a primary roadway? I wish I had the data for this.

by Miriam on May 18, 2013 6:19 am • linkreport

This weekend's Toronto Star had a piece on jaywalking:

Drivers in Toronto are vastly more courteous than those here in DMV. Nevertheless, here are two of the three comments posted with that article:

#1At intersections you have vehicles coming from 4 directions and each of those vehicles can continue straight, stop, turn left, turn right - that is 16 possible outcomes you need to be aware of. In the middle of a block you have vehicles from 2 directions who are continuing straight - that is 2 possible outcomes to watch for.

i will say it a million more times...whenever i've had a close call with a car, it has been at a flashing crosswalk or intersection with lights in MY favour. i have almost always been hit at crosswalks and have NEVER almost been hit jaywalking.

by Capt. Hilts on May 18, 2013 8:59 am • linkreport



PLEASE HELP US get publicity for the PSA for Safety on the road...It is for both drivers and walkers.
It is SO well done.

Gwen Ward, mother of Christina Morris-Ward is featured. Christina was killed on Oct 31, 2012 while crossing Germantown RD. She was 2 blocks from Seneca Valley HS. She was just 15 and wanted to be a Pediatrician.

It is a very effective message.

"YOU TUBE.... SENECA VALLEY PUBLIC SAFETY ANNOUNCEMENT " produced by the students themselves. The message highlights the importance of being a safe pedestrian and driver.

The PSA is short . Please e mail this to parents, grandparents, principals, PTAS. Help turn this tragedy into a useful and effective tool to get the message out.

by Ruthanne Stoltzfus on May 19, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

Here is the link for the PSA mentioned above. THANK YOU !

by Ruthanne Stoltzfus on May 19, 2013 11:43 am • linkreport

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