Walla Walla group pushes for action to make travel to schools safe

Many improvements require partnerships between the city, county, school district and law enforcement.

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WALLA WALLA - Better marked crosswalks near schools, and the off-duty officers issuing citations near schools are among the more immediate goals of a recently formed traffic safety group.

To & From: The Safe Travels Alliance held its first meeting Wednesday, drawing 30 school district officials, concerned parents and law enforcement officers to Walla Walla Public Schools administration offices. In just under two hours, participants outlined immediate and longer-term goals.

The Safe Travels Alliance was launched by Kathryn Southwick Hess and Katie Christianson, both concerned parents who are ready for action to address close calls and actual impact between children and vehicles around schools.

"We've had five kids hit. Way too many close calls, and we need to do something," Southwick Hess said as a prelude to the work session.

Christianson then spoke about the need to problem-solve, and leave complaints aside for the purpose of getting things done.

"We're here to figure out what we're going to do," she said. "We are done telling our horror stories. We know there's a problem, we know it's grave. We're here to move forward."

Southwick Hess and Christianson established the alliance following children being struck by vehicles either walking or biking to school. Two Pioneer Middle School boys were struck in a crosswalk just days after school started this school year. There have been at least two more reports of children struck by vehicles on their way to school. Most children were treated and released from local hospitals or received minor injuries.

The group is looking for a broad approach to traffic and pedestrian safety, including education within the schools for children on how to walk and bike safely and cautiously. There was also a brief discussion on how to get a helmet law passed for youths under 18.

Christianson said one matter of high priority is to clearly mark and paint crosswalks around district schools. She was firm that if money was not available through the city for paint that parents would find a way to do it themselves.

Some goals that may take more time included researching grants to secure flashing signs or lighted crosswalks for schools that lack them. Berney Elementary is one school in need of such signals, as well as an overall traffic safety plan.

The group's momentum follows recent activity throughout the city to improve walking and biking routes for children heading to school. Through the federal Safe Routes To School program, Chestnut Street leading up to Blue Ridge Elementary got improved sidewalks and curbs a few years ago. The grant was also recently secured to make similar improvements along Bridge Street, which serves Pioneer Middle and Edison Elementary.

A Safe Routes to School grant is being sought to make Reser Road pedestrian-friendly for Prospect Point Elementary students. The competitive grants are sought through the city in partnership with the school district, or require county involvement depending on boundaries.

Many other improvements being considered would require such partnerships between the city, county, school district and law enforcement.

The focus on traffic safety also comes when driving is the norm for most people, and rules of the road are often bent in the haste of getting from one place to the next quickly. People and children who walk or bike run the risk of coming in contact with vehicles.

Pioneer Middle School Principal Dana Jones pointed out that children are not just at risk around schools, but on busy streets or intersections they may cross on their way to school.

Communications Director Mark Higgins said he felt the best way to impact distracted or speeding drivers is to hit them financially.

"I think there's go to be some way that we ramp up enforcement, and hit that pocketbook," he said.

Walla Walla Police Capt. Gary Bainter said having on-duty officers aggressively write traffic tickets in a town with 150 miles of streets is not realistic. But he said there are off-duty officers interested in working at schools during peak traffic times.

"How fast can that happen?" Christianson asked. "Is this something that can happen right away?"

Walla Walla Public Schools Supreintendent Mick Miller answered: "Absolutely."

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

The Safe Travels Alliance will hold anot her meeting Oct. 20 at noon at Jacobi's Restaurant, 416 N. Second Ave. For more information call 526-5469.

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