Views / Toronto

Edward Keenan: Stop driving your kids to school — it could be a lifesaver

Parents in virtually every neighbourhood will know already that we have somehow collectively turned our schoolside streets into chaotic, overcrowded, apparently lawless car-dodging zones.

A lone stuffed toy bear rests on a snow-covered bench outside St. Raphael Catholic School on Tuesday. Camila Torcato, 5, was killed after being pinned by an SUV outside the school on Monday.

Torstar News Service

A lone stuffed toy bear rests on a snow-covered bench outside St. Raphael Catholic School on Tuesday. Camila Torcato, 5, was killed after being pinned by an SUV outside the school on Monday.

Shocking. Saddening. But not surprising.

The death of 5-year-old Camila Torcato, I mean. When the news came that she had died after being pinned between two cars in the drop-off-and-pick-up area outside the Downsview school where she attended kindergarten, that was the order of reactions.

If you, like me, are the parent of primary-school-age children, the news may have seemed particularly horrifying. All of us out here, parents or not, who are equipped with human empathy are struck by the magnitude of such a tragedy, of course. But for those of us who tuck our daughters into bed at night alongside the same stuffed giraffe we see in the photos of Camila’s makeshift streetside memorial, it is too easy to imagine such bottomless grief visiting our own homes. And to feel an undercurrent of rage in our reaction, because part of the ease of visualizing it is that any of us who have dropped a child off at a Toronto school knew well something like this would happen.

Parents all across this city — downtown and suburbs alike, in virtually every neighbourhood — will know already that we have somehow collectively turned our schoolside streets into chaotic, overcrowded, apparently lawless car-dodging zones. Drivers of cars wedged into sidestreets as thick as passengers on a rush-hour subway train crowd into school-bus-only zones, perform random-seeming U-turns in heavy traffic, pull in and out of parking lots and spots, idle up on the sidewalk, stop to let kids off in the middle of the road … and so on. And this while kids are rushed to the yard to beat the bell, and parents are huffing off back into their cars trying to get to work.

It’s a mess — a million accidents waiting to happen. And many hundreds of those accidents have happened. A 2016 study from York University and Sick Kids’ Hospital catalogued observations of rampant dangerous driving at more than 88 per cent of the 118 Toronto schools they studied — and noted 411 children struck by vehicles within 200 metres of their schools over a 12 year period in the study area.

The accident that killed little Camila was a freak one (an unoccupied Honda apparently somehow became engaged in gear and rolled into the girl and her father as she was getting into their Mercedes SUV), but the conditions that created the opportunity for it to happen were common and obvious at every school in the city you’d care to visit.

Every parent knows this. We complain about it. We fear it. Yet we cause it, every time we choose to drive our kids to school rather than walking them there.

And more and more of us choose to do that all the time. According to a 2016 SmartCommutereport based on 2011 data, the most recent I could find, 29.1 per cent of 11- to 13-year-old kids in Toronto arrive at school in a car (frustratingly, I couldn’t find reliable statistics for younger children), just about three times as many as did so in 1986.

If you’re in a car dropping your kid off at school and cursing to yourself about the level of traffic, it’s time to glance into the rearview and realize: you are traffic. If conditions are unsafe and frustrating, you are as much the cause of it as any other driver on the block.

Of course, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Schools and school boards have tried to set up better systems for drop-offs and to define better safety rules about where and how cars can move around the school. But it doesn’t appear they’ve even begun to find a solution to the chaos.

Police departments do hit school zones with ticketing blitzes — one was reportedly conducted this month at the school where this week’s fatal crash occurred. But the scofflaw driving behaviour is still rampant.

Politicians have passed lower school-zone speed limits and plenty of case-by-case traffic measures. But the environment across the city outside schools is still like an automotive rugby scrum.

We’re not good at this stuff, in general. The past two years were notably terrible years for pedestrian deaths in Toronto and early in 2018 we’re already averaging one pedestrian fatality on the road every three days. In response, the police launched a new pedestrian-safety campaign aimed at telling pedestrians to “cross the road as if their life depended on it.” I’ve written before about why I think official safety campaigns targeted at pedestrian behaviour rather than at motorists are wrong-headed, but having this campaign released on the same day most of us learned of this 5-year-old’s death underlines the cruel inadequacy of that response to safety problems.

Everyone on that list — politicians, school administrators, police — needs to do better, to eliminate the school traffic chaos. Maybe a tragedy like this one will galvanize everyone to finally find a solution to an obvious problem. But it’s also obvious that we parents, who have children in school, who may feel particularly emotionally struck by the news of this most recent death, have it in our power to help solve the problem too. Right away, and directly.

We can stop driving our kids to school.

Or if we need for some reason to give them a ride, park a few blocks away and walk from there. Stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution. Maybe we need to leave the house a few minutes earlier. Maybe our kid will be late for school some days, or we’ll wind up being late for work. But if that means we don’t contribute to anyone’s death, it’ll be worth the hassle.

To put a spin on an old traffic-safety message: the child we save may be our own.

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