Study finds risky driving still a problem around schools

By Saumya Jain

Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among school children. Although some cities and schools that have implemented safety programs around schools have seen decreases in dangerous driving in school zones, those improvements have been more than offset by worsening driver behavior near schools across the country. That is the conclusion of a new study of risky driving behavior in school zones, released just as kids are going back to school, with parents often driving them.

In 2017, Zendrive, a tech start-up that provides smartphone-based safety monitoring, compiled an analysis of driver behavior around school zones. They focused on distracted driving by measuring use of cellphones while driving, hard breaks, and fast acceleration by drivers in school zones. They graded school zones, counties, and states and released an interactive map, rating school zone safety throughout the U.S. After the release of the report, SSTI compared Zendrive’s distracted driving data with fatal crash rates but couldn’t identify a reliable relationship between the two. In an October 2017 blogpost we concluded that additional data showing increases in distracted driving over time could reveal a stronger trend and focus attention on the more alarming factors at hand, like speeding and increasing VMT.

Zendrive recently shared their 2018 analysis, which is more detailed compared to last year’s, and the report shows some interesting connections between driver behavior and safety initiatives.  According to the analysis, the schools that have shown the most significant improvement are the ones that have been increasing awareness around traffic safety and are adopting the Vision Zero policies. The improvements have been most evident around NYC and LA schools that have implemented Vision Zero policies. Though the study is still far from establishing a strong connection between distracted driving due to phone usage, it shows a solid relationship between safety design, traffic awareness, and driver behavior. The report also states that nine of the ten most dangerous schools are in rural areas near busy highways. They link increasing traffic congestion and people driving with unsafe driving behavior.

The Zendrive report concludes with a comparison to last year’s data, and finds that the decreases in some areas were more than offset by a tripling of risky driving around schools in general. This is an alarming statistic and emphasizes the need to speed up school traffic safety programs.

The Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program has been working for years with communities and schools, trying to make school zones safer. According SRTS, “Enforcement programs start with identification of the unsafe behaviors of drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists around the school. Then appropriate strategies for improving these behaviors can be selected.” In the past couple of years, there have been many initiatives by communities, as well as local and federal organizations, to identify issues and improve safety around schools. A few resources that can be useful in assessing safety and redesigning school zones include:

Saumya Jain is a Senior Associate at SSTI.