Tacoma City Councilmember Robert Thoms has presented a plan to the council that would widen the speed-reduction areas around school zones.
The proposed changes city staffers are now detailing could basically double the 20-mile-per-hour speed zone around schools. Current zones are determined by measuring the 300-foot speed reduction zone starting at the school’s main crosswalk and moving outward 300 feet in both directions. This method means that the school zone often begins in the middle of a block or midway along a school’s ball field or parking lot. The proposal would change that measurement to up to 300 feet from the school’s “active use” area, namely ball fields, parking lots and playgrounds. The change would mean schools would have reduced speed zones about two city blocks around them.
The idea had been under discussion and endorsed by the School Safety Task Force, a joint committee that includes city and school officials.
“With the upgrades of schools across the Tacoma Public Schools District, this effort is actually a great time to drive toward greater collaboration and partnership where we have similar concerns,” Thoms said. “We obviously control the streets and infrastructure, and they know the schools that have the most acute growth and challenges.”
City staff is working out the details, but the initial proposal is to do the work in phases, starting with elementary schools that would only require moving the current signs farther down the streets to fit the new school zone policy. That would cost $13,000 and change school crossings at four locations. The effort would then target the three schools that would only require minor changes and a few new signs. Cost is estimated to be $900. The third phase is expected to cost $50,000 to change zones at nine schools because the work could include street upgrades. The first two phases can simply be absorbed into the city’s current street budget and be finished by the time school starts in September. The final phase, however, would likely require some cost sharing. Street changes around schools are often funded by a three-way split among the City of Tacoma, Tacoma Public Schools and state grants.
One concern about the changes involves a matter of driver behavior. If a school zone is too long, drivers might slow down at the first sign only to speed up again by the time the school passes outside their windows 600 feet later. A test at Lowell Elementary School, for example, had mixed results.
“That is the great debate,” said Safety and Environment Manager for Tacoma Schools Ken Wilson.
The district doesn’t have statistics on student-related car accidents around schools, but many of the schools are located on either main arterials or roads that have seen increased traffic volumes during the years since they were built, Wilson said.
“I don’t have a lot of hard data, but we get periodic reports of kids being bumped and that kind of thing,” he said, noting that such non-injury incidents often don’t generate a formal report. “You get the impression that traffic isn’t calming down around schools.”
While some drivers might first slow down only to speed up while still in a school zone, it would just take one driver to honor the speed limit to slow the rest of traffic since most schools border two-lane roads that wouldn’t easily allow a speeding car to pass, he said.
The Tacoma Police Department doesn’t aggregate accident data in school zones either. Police reports use cross streets to denote crash sites, not location names like schools.
“We don’t have a whole lot of them,” Tacoma Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said of pedestrian-versus-car accidents in school zones. She recalled two. One was last year, when a student on a bike apparently was clipped by a car but was not seriously injured. Another occurred more than a decade ago, when a boy living across the street from Lister Elementary School ran from his house to play with other children who had arrived to school early.
“He just opened the door and ran off,” she said. A passing SUV hit the boy and dragged him under the car. He died. “That was a really bad one.”
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