Timed for the new school year, a recent press release by the local police addressed the manifold dangers our children face on their way to school (“Police offer back-to-school safety tips,” Community Briefs, Aug. 22). The back-to-school list contains some sensible advice: Allow enough time, map your route, and arrange for the children to walk together. But when it goes on to speak about “safe houses,” warns of vacant lots and slow-moving vehicles, the mood darkens and the way to school attracts concerns which go much deeper than “paying attention to traffic signals and use crosswalks” (which is listed last).
Is walking to school really such a dangerous activity? Where shall we draw the line between sensible advice and imagining the street as a place where child thieves lurk and linger? Is the street really such a dangerous place?
Why not put all the kids into school buses, writes a concerned mother a few days later in the letters column, again repeating the notion that streets are ever so dangerous places (“Wheels on the bus,” Letters to the Editor, Aug 26). The home, that is safe. The school, that too is safe. But the street is where we need to worry and be prepared, so the chorus goes. But is this negative view of the street correct? And is the rosy view of home and school based on facts and numbers? It is not!
I would say the street is the place where community happens. But the protective impulse (nobody wants children hurt) easily turns into hysteria. Reassuring words are needed to make it easy for parents to see their children grow up into independence. Instead the street is depicted as a place of impending catastrophe and traumatic loss.
Exposed to such misinformation, parents don’t want to seem uncaring, and proceed to pack their offspring into the back of the car, adding four more trips to our traffic-suffering town (back and forth twice a day), and contributing, yet again, to make the street a place of faceless car traffic, while everybody yearns for it to become a place of encounter and community. It is paradoxical, sad, and deeply disturbing, that the notice released by the Santa Monica police (and the school district?) will in fact not make our children safer. It will make them more unhealthy (for being driven around by anxious parents), and it will increase the number of cars on our streets, and every single one of these cars (not the imaginary child-thieves) will increase the danger to our children on our roads. The children who get hurt on the way to school are being hurt by cars which are driven by parents.
It is easy to play to the gallery of anxious parents. Long-standing and ongoing efforts to develop safe routes to school can suffer a setback when a press release panders to the road-danger-hysteria which induces parents to show their love for their children by packing them in the back of a car. Let us not forget that it takes a village to raise a child, and that everywhere, village happens on the street. So let us support those parents who recognize this, who help their children to walk and ride their bike to school, and let us help others to drive less, and be less afraid of cars. Cars help to get you somewhere fast, but they do impair community. They make it very difficult for a village to raise its children. Be careful with the road-danger-hysteria. It is a widespread condition which affects all parts of the society, leads to more cars on the road and results in more dangerous conditions for all.