A crossing guard guides a group of elementary school students across the street.
Drivers tend to be most distracted during late-afternoon pickup times. Jeff Roberson/AP

A study on distracted driving finds that urban kids face higher risks when walking or biking around their schools at the end of the day.

Earlier this year, the driver analytics company Zendrive found that an appalling 88 percent of people use their mobile phones while driving, and a cursory look around the roads will probably confirm that figure. Researchers point to distracted driving as a main culprit of a disturbing trend: After falling for decades, the number of fatalities from motor vehicles has climbed for the last two years.  

Recent statistics for pedestrian deaths for teenagers show a similar regression: The number of fatalities for those under 19 has decreased over the past two decades, but since 2013 has risen by 13 percent for 12 to 19-year-olds. Media accounts are often quick to blame kids wearing headphones or video-chatting when drivers are actually at fault. When a 14-year-old Philadelphia girl on her way to cheerleader practice was struck by a distracted driver, one local TV report opened its story with the fact that she was Facetiming with a friend while in a marked crosswalk. The driver was later charged with aggravated assault.

Zendrive’s new study focuses on the behavior of drivers around schools. Using sensors in phones, the company measures whether users are texting, making calls, and otherwise fiddling with their phones while the car is moving. It also analyzes rapid acceleration and hard braking. Based on driver behavior in the vicinity of 75,000 public schools in 2,222 counties, Zendrive then ranked the safest schools, counties, and states. (The U.S. has close to 100,000 public schools and a little over 3,000 counties.)

The complete data set: 3.8 million drivers taking 320 million trips. The drivers were both individual and commercial, and were either customers of Zendrive or its partners, such as the app GasBuddy, which searches for cheap gas in an area.

Urban schools were most likely to be besieged by bad drivers, not surprisingly—schools in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Dallas topped the list, while rural counties in North Carolina, Colorado, and Montana have the safest drivers. Zendrive also found that the hour between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. is the most dangerous to be walking or biking near a school.

This makes sense: The end of the workday is often accompanied by a flurry of plan-making and chores, including pick-up duties for millions of moms and dads. Because the study didn’t measure distracted driver behavior beyond that in the vicinity of a school, it’s unclear whether the areas ranked are any more or less dangerous than, say, the entire city in which a school is located. But the dangerous 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. hour echoes earlier studies that show that, outside of the bar-closing hours of midnight to 4 a.m., the end of the workday is the riskiest to be on the road. (For the general population, that means a little later—5 p.m. to 7 p.m.—given its workday, rather than school day, hours.)

Zendrive recommends that parents, regardless of what type of area they live in, pick up their children during the afternoon hours rather than let them walk or bike. If parents are unable, the company suggests a service such as HopSkipDrive—an “Uber for kids” in which parents pay for a vetted driver (usually a nurse, teacher, or caregiver) to ferry their children around.

HopSkipDrive, like GasBuddy, also partners with Zendrive to provide it with driver behavior data. It’s currently only available in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and it’s expensive: A minimum ride in LA is $16, while in SF it’s $18, though carpools in both cities are more reasonable, starting a $7 a ride.

Of course, putting even more drivers on the roads around schools seems like a counterintuitive way to address this problem. Around one in 11 U.S. public schools is within 500 feet of roads with heavy traffic; these roads have six times the number of pedestrian collisions than their less well-traveled counterparts. Though Joanna McFarland, co-Founder and CEO of HopSkipDrive, counters that the carpool option relieves traffic congestion around schools, others say dispatching more private vehicles to pick up kids isn’t the solution.

Nancy Pullen-Seufert, the director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School, is working to reduce the tragic consequences of unsafe driving around schools through a less car-centric approach. Pullen-Seufert works with communities on such initiatives as “walking school buses” or bicycle trains, in which adults supervise a group of children traveling to school by foot or bicycle. “It’s a convenient way for kids and parents to get physical activity, and it doesn’t generate more cars,” she says. (Zendrive also recommends supporting organizations like Pullen-Seufert’s, and for parents or caregivers to walk their kids home from school when possible.)

Parents may rotate responsibilities in walking school buses and bicycle trains, giving them a breather from the daily grind of transporting their offspring to and from school. (A recent HopSkipDrive survey found that the hours parents spend managing their children’s transportation may constitute a part-time job.)

If a family lives far from a school, parents can sometimes drop their children at a park, church, or other walkable location, where they’re picked up by the walking or biking group. Still, for these families, the routine is particularly taxing. “Today’s parents have to do some creative cobbling,” says Pullen-Seufert. “Not only are both parents often working, but with the move toward charter schools and school choice, students may not be attending the school closest to their home, so the commute takes more time.”

Pullen-Seufert’s center also works to implement Vision Zero, the road traffic safety movement found in Europe, the United States, and Canada that aims to eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries through such tactics as separated bike paths, shortened crosswalk distances, and better pedestrian infrastructure. The center launched the Vision Zero for Youth initiative in 2015 to urge cities to implement these strategies in school zones.

Next Wednesday, October 4, kids across the country will participate in the center’s 20th annual Walk to School Day. Pullen-Seufert says participation has grown from only two schools in 1997 to more than 5,000 last year. The number of institutions that have signed up this year is double that.

“This is a bellwether,” she says. “More and more communities are becoming interested in promoting safe walking and biking for their students. No one I talk to says, ‘Gosh, let’s spend more time in our cars!’”

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