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As traffic fatalities rise, cities take street safety lessons to the classroom

Students at Neval Thomas Elementary School in the District practice in a “traffic garden” on the playground. (Jay Westcott for The Washington Post)

Sometimes, to make life lessons stick you have to start young.

Stop, look and wave before you cross the street. Always cross at a crosswalk. Wear a helmet when you ride a bike. When you come to a stop sign, stop; look both ways before proceeding. Share the road and give others some space.

As traffic fatalities rise, teachers and traffic-safety experts in the Washington region are bringing those lessons to school classrooms, training students on how to safely navigate the streets — lessons that educators say will last a lifetime and that transportation officials hope will inculcate a safety culture in the next generation of road users.

“Teaching safe roadway behavior at a young age is the best way to ensure that they are safe users of the roadways as they become adults,” said Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation.

Cities nationwide are embracing that strategy, incorporating street-safety education in school curriculums, and promoting walking and biking to school.

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Montgomery County has employed a campaign that uses photos of teens with tread marks on their faces to send a message to high school students about the risks and fatal consequences of distracted driving and walking. The message is promoted on social media with the hashtag #YOLO­WalkSafe. In Alexandria, crash survivors tell their stories at student assemblies. And in the District, schools are building miniature city grids on their playgrounds to teach children as young as 4 the rules of the road.

Safety advocates say the trend is encouraging, especially as biking and walking become increasingly more popular and new modes of transportation provide more ways to get around.

“We want students to learn how to properly cross the street and how to properly ride to school. We want them to feel empowered to do so,” said Kristin Rosenthal, senior program manager at Safe Kids Worldwide, which promotes safe streets for children.

But, she added, while more education at a young age could foment a safety culture early, cities still need to prioritize investments in road-safety infrastructure and enforcement of traffic laws.

Many children don’t want to walk or bike to school because cars are speeding or because sidewalks are broken or missing, a Safe Kids Worldwide project found.

“They don’t think they can do it safely,” Rosenthal said.

The number of children who walk and bike to school has dropped dramatically since the mid-1950s and ’60s, when about 50 percent of American children walked to school. The most recent federal data, from 2017, shows that only about 10 percent of children ages 5 to 17 walk to school. Increasing those numbers is of growing interest to cities, not just to encourage active and healthier lifestyles, but also to reduce traffic congestion and meet environmental goals.

“We want to see these numbers going back up and families walking and biking to school instead of driving and creating more congestion and more chaos,” Rosenthal said.

Anecdotally, she said, it appears the trend is reversing in some places, including the District and its suburbs, where schools are adding bike racks and promoting events such as this Wednesday’s Bike to School Day.

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Michael Doyle, an advocate with Alexandria Families for Safe Streets and a crash survivor, said children can also help educate their parents, who aren’t always showing their kids a good example of appropriate road behavior.

During his visits to schools, Doyle gives students a 15-minute pep talk and then tells them about being struck by a distracted driver while he crossed at a four-way stop years ago.

“It was painful,” he told a group of Alexandria third-, fourth- and fifth-graders recently. Then he gave students some tips: When walking, always be visible, wear bright clothing and look both ways before crossing. When you are old enough to drive: “Pay attention. Lives depend on you!”

Then he sent them home with a flier listing those do’s and don’ts in English and Spanish.

In the District, all second-graders are taught how to ride a bike, learning the basics of safe riding in a class that culminates with a triumphant five-mile ride. The training starts even earlier in some schools, where the city has repurposed the asphalt around playgrounds with traffic markings — including bike lanes, roundabouts and crosswalks — creating miniature towns known as “traffic gardens” where pre-kindergartners practice getting around city streets.

The training is taken so seriously at Neval Thomas Elementary in Northeast Washington that Marie­rose Mbinack, the physical education teacher, learned to ride a bike herself recently to lead by example. A product of the D.C. public school system, she didn’t have anyone to teach her how when she was a kid.

“We have a lot of families, kind of like my family; they work a lot and by the time they get home, it’s dark,” she said. “The fact that we are able to teach my students how to do that here is helping us support the families.”

When she started teaching the 4-year-olds this spring in the traffic gardens, many didn’t know what a stop sign was. But last week, as the dozen pre-K students prepared to hop on their balance bikes and ride into the mini-city grid, they knew the basics.

“We are going to stop at the stop sign and look both ways. We are going to give people some space,” Mbinack told them.

“What should we wear?” she asked.

“A helmet,” McKayla Gill, 4, was quick to respond. “You always have to wear a helmet.”

With their helmets on, the children followed instructions as they rode, sometimes straying outside the lanes and quickly correcting, but stopping at the stop signs, slowing down at a ramp, and looking out for pedestrians at the crosswalk.

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D.C. Public Schools officials said the traffic gardens introduced at two elementary schools this spring have been such a success that they want to expand them to more schools next year. The schools are working with a team of graduate students and professors at George Mason University that helped design the gardens and the classroom curriculum, and are tracking how the students are using the knowledge outside the playground.

DDOT provided the $150,000 grant for the first two traffic gardens and is working with the schools on an expansion plan, said Marootian, the transportation director. He said the program is an important part of the effort to combat the rising number of traffic fatalities in the city and of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s Vision Zero, an ambitious plan to end traffic deaths by 2024.

Thirty-six people were killed in traffic crashes in the District last year, up from 31 in 2017, according to city and federal crash data. Half the victims last year were either on foot or two wheels.

Educating youngsters on traffic safety is particularly important in the District, where about 75 percent of school-age children attend schools outside of their neighborhoods and many walk or take public transportation to get there.

Neval Thomas Principal Jaimee Trahan said the program could give parents greater assurance about the safety of their children in areas where they have to cross wide roadways and dangerous intersections to get to school. The students are learning to understand how all modes of transportation interact with one another, about signage and roadway markings, and to be fully aware in the city’s transportation system.

“For some families, walking here can be a 20- to 30-minutes journey,” she said. “Them understanding how to navigate the streets safely is very important.”

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