Spate of Accidents Prompts School District to Launch Traffic Safety Campaign

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday March 27, 2009 - 11:18:00 AM

Citing a sudden rise in accidents involving Berkeley Unified School District students, Superintendent Bill Huyett announced at the Berkeley Board of Education meeting Wednesday that the district would work with traffic safety groups to educate children about bicycle and pedestrian safety issues. 

The district met with the Safe Routes to School Alameda County Partnership program Thursday afternoon to discuss ways to initiate a traffic safety campaign in the public schools. 

District spokesperson Mark Coplan said that in addition to the two kindergartners injured in automobile collisions within a month—including 5-year-old Zachary Michael Cruz of LeConte Elementary School, who was struck and killed by a truck Feb. 27—three more Berkeley public school students had been involved in accidents on their way to school. 

The most recent accident happened Monday, March 23, when a Jefferson Elementary School student was walking to school with her mother and younger sister and was hit by a car while she was in the crosswalk at Cedar and Acton streets. 

“The driver said that he had not seen her because the sun had blinded his eyes,” Coplan said. 

The student suffered minor bruises, according to Coplan, and was rushed to the hospital by her mother and Jefferson Principal Maggie Riddle. The girl is already back at school. 

Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Officer Andrew Frankel said that a report on the incident wasn’t available as of Thursday. 

On March 13, a man was dropping off his nephew, a Malcolm X kindergartner, on Ellis Street, right across from where school buses park, when the child collided with a moving car belonging to a woman who was dropping her granddaughter off at school, he said. “He ran into the car instead of the car running into him, so he wasn’t injured,” Coplan said. “But he was extremely shook up and his mother took him home.” 

On Jan. 30, the same day another Malcolm X kindergartner was hit by a Toyota 4 Runner when she darted into the crosswalk at Ashby and Ellis streets after hearing the morning school bell, an eighth grader was seriously injured while riding her bike to Berkeley High School. Coplan said the girl was struck by a car and taken to Children’s Hospital in Oakland. 

“Her injuries were pretty serious and she still hasn’t returned to school,” Coplan said. “I understand she had to undergo operations and is going through a lot of physical therapy. Since this happened out of school hours we didn’t get any information about it until much later.” 

Neither Coplan nor Berkeley police were able to provide information about the location of the incident or the nature of her injuries. 

“I think the number of accidents we have had in such a short time is startling,” Coplan said, echoing Superintendent Huyett’s remarks at the meeting. “From talking to transportation officials and organizations ... these numbers are a surprise, but the real surprise is that it’s not happening more often. We’ve heard that near misses and potential accidents occur a lot around drop-off and pick-up locations at schools.” 

Farid Javandel, the city’s transportation manager, said the Berkeley City Council had just approved a grant application that would award the city around $1 million to carry out traffic improvements, including installing flashing lights at Ashby and Ellis to warn drivers of pedestrians. 

“A cluster of accidents is always alarming,” Javandel said. “It brings the issues to the forefront. Whether these are statistically important, that will take some time to pan out.” 

He added that transportation officials were also in the process of updating the City of Berkeley’s bike and pedestrian plan, which includes upgrades to ADA ramps and crosswalks, among other things. 

“Drivers should also remember to watch out and yield at crosswalks—they need to see if people are approaching,” he said. “Children often act in an unpredictable manner. You definitely have to be very aware of the environment as a driver. It’s very important to keep a safe speed limit.” 

Berkeley recently received a grant through the city’s Health and Human Services Department that helped to purchase seven permanent speed-feedback signs. 

The City Council approved specific locations at the last council meeting based on recommendations by transportation officials. 

Susan Silber, education coordinator for Safe Routes to Schools, said that Berkeley Unified was eager to launch the traffic safety campaign as soon as possible. 

“The district is ultra concerned about the number of accidents that have been occurring,” she said. “The superintendent got in touch with me and wants to do a campaign about traffic safety and about getting drivers more aware, especially around kids and schools. We want to make sure that every school in the district is taking advantage of Safe Routes to Schools. We have been working in some schools but not all schools—not all parents want to volunteer with us.” 

Safe Routes to Schools is currently at nine of the 11 Berkeley public elementary schools. 

Silber said that a survey of how students traveled to the elementary schools showed a vast majority were either driven to school or took a school bus. About 10 percent walked and about 2 percent biked. 

“Berkeley Unified has a zoning plan, so most students don’t go to neighborhood schools,” she said, referring to the district’s student placement system, which assigns students from three geographic attendance zones in the city. 

“They want to diversify their schools so that you can send students from all across town,” she said. “Diversity is great, but unfortunately most kids don’t end up in schools in their neighborhood.” 

Coplan said that at the high school, which doesn’t have school buses, at least 500 to 1,000 students get dropped off by their parents. Others use public transit, BART or walk, and a very small number of students—about 200—drive themselves to school. 

He said that the majority of the students in elementary and middle schools who didn’t take the school bus were driven to school by their parents. 

The district’s transportation division is also taking steps to minimize accidents, Coplan said. 

“The good news is that everybody is looking at safety first, everybody wants to do something about it,” he said.