In late June Gov. Ned Lamont signed HB 5917– An Act Implementing the Recommendations of the Vision Zero Council. The law, which passed by wide bipartisan margins, is an attempt to stem and reverse the scourge of traffic and pedestrian fatalities in the state.
Perhaps the most important provision is the section empowering municipalities to install automated speed and red light cameras within “school zones, pedestrian safety zones and other places in such municipality.” With the school year right around the corner, it’s the perfect time for Connecticut’s towns and cities to start identifying dangerous intersections near their schools and lay the groundwork for safer streets.
Most Connecticut kids will start Day 1 of the 2023-2024 school year by waiting for a bus or piling into a car — and they won’t be alone in that. According to the Safe Routes to School Organization, in 1969, 48% of children walked or bicycled to school, but by 2009 that number was down to only 13%. A 2019 article in Planetizen provided even starker data points. According to a planner at a public meeting, “Over 85 percent of people’s parents walked to school, but only 61 percent of respondents say they walked to school. And they report that only 10 percent of their children walk to school today.” This is a policy failure on so many levels.
Students miss out on exercise and the freedom previous generations enjoyed, but so do the parents who have to shuttle them to and from class and activities. And walkable and bikeable schools are also better on an educational level, too. Students who can get to school independently are better able to participate in extracurricular activities or get extra academic help before the day begins without having to rely on a parent (many of whom work and can’t drop them off early or pick them up after).
There are many reasons why so few of Connecticut’s kids walk or bike to school. Representatives Tom O’Dea and Travis Simms argued that Connecticut’s neglect laws are too broad, and co-sponsored a bill to “make clear that neglect isn’t when you let your kids play outside or walk to school.” I applaud their efforts, but I think there’s a more important reason why parents don’t let their kids walk or bike as much as they used to — the built environment and the ever-present danger of cars.
Massive minimum lot sizes mean our homes are spread out and far away from schools, and too many towns have compounded that error by building new schools out on the edge. Couple that with too few sidewalks, the ever-increasing size of vehicles, and rampant speeding and red light running, and it’s no wonder less kids walk and bike.
Fortunately, there are efforts to reverse these trends. This past May over 50 students rode their bikes to Fairfield’s Stratfield School as part of the town’s first “bike bus.” And in many of our cities, students already walk to school, and we should take advantage of the tools the Vision Zero bill offers to make it safer for the state’s kids to get to class each day.
Ultimately, we need to build streets that are safe for humans, including wide sidewalks, separated and protected bike lanes, and woonerf-style traffic calming measures. But that will take time, and in the meanwhile we don’t have to accept the status quo of fast cars and main roads that are too dangerous for kids to walk and bike to school on.
Automated traffic enforcement in school zones can’t make cars smaller or build more sidewalks, but it can make the streets around schools safer. As Abigail Roth outlined in an outstanding piece in April, “18 states use speed cameras; 22 red light cameras. Most studies reported that speed cameras reduce collisions by 30 to 40%.” In other words, automated enforcement cameras work.
As of October 1, any municipality can authorize such automated traffic safety devices in school zones, and everyone involved in education —including parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, boards of education, and students themselves—should start identifying locations and pushing their elected officials to install them as soon as possible.
We all have an interest in stopping reckless driving, and automated traffic cameras are a no-brainer for school zones across Connecticut.
Thomas Broderick lives in Trumbull.