How many times have you driven down a street or through an intersection and passed a pedestrian or person on a bike in a crosswalk as they wait for safe passage? Maybe you didn’t even notice someone standing there. Or you could have been the pedestrian trying to safely navigate the crosswalk, only to be passed by car after car that doesn’t always stop for you despite it being the law in New Jersey. Pedestrians aren’t the only ones waiting for safe passage on New Jersey’s streets.
October marks International Walk to School Month. It’s celebrated in more than 40 countries by millions of walking and biking participants, according to the Safe Routes to School organization. Many school districts and municipalities across New Jersey may try to raise awareness about pedestrian and bike safety by encouraging students and parents to walk or ride to school this year on Oct. 8. Police departments may send officers to schools or be stationed at points along the way instructing kids and adults on the rules of the road.
It’s a great idea. I believe giving kids the freedom to safely navigate and enjoy their communities on foot or bike comes with educating them fully about their responsibilities in different situations. Reminding drivers of their responsibility to look out for pedestrians and bike riders is just as important.
As a kid, I walked and rode my bike all over Edgewater Park, probably around the same age our two kids are now, 11 and 8. I’m not sure if I ever told my mom that when I was a little older my friends and I often rode our bikes along Woodlane Road to Jack in the Box and then crossed Route 130 through a break in the barrier to get to Woolworth’s at the Willingboro Plaza. The taco and watermelon water ice was always worth the trip. Even then, my older sister and I shared a few harried bike rides home at dusk from a friend’s house when bats would be flying around. On the same bike, I hid under her shirt while she pedaled and we both screamed and laughed our way home. Riding bikes was one my favorite things to do as a kid. I never really worried about my own safety, but of course I’m the complete opposite when it comes to our kids.
This summer our 8-year-old son and I spent many mornings on our bikes. I’ve been hopeful our instructions on safe biking sank in somewhere along the way, but a recent incident reminded me not to take for granted that he would retain everything. He left his bike at a friend’s house one night so we drove him there to pick it up. He wanted to ride it back alone which was OK with us. My husband Tom and I joked that by following him at a distance in our car we were certainly being helicopter parents, watching his every move. I’m probably worse than a helicopter—more like a hovercraft—but I’m glad we were there considering what happened next.
Tom got out of the car and helped our son across a busy road with crosswalks that drivers too often ignore. As he rode along the sidewalk I think he was really enjoying his adventure until Tom yelled for him to stop and watch out for a car turning into a driveway our son was approaching. He stopped in the nick of time ... just before the car crossed his path. The driver pulling into the driveway must not have seen him and didn’t stop and my son wasn’t looking for a turning car. I wanted to yell at someone, I was so scared myself but realized that wouldn’t do him or me any good. I asked him if he was OK and he said he was. I could see he was shaken.
When we got home we reminded him about always being on the lookout for cars that aren’t necessarily looking for him. We take bike rides with both of our kids, letting them know they have to obey traffic laws the same way drivers do. Stop signs and traffic lights apply to them, and they must yield to pedestrians. In certain situations, I think our son is safer on the sidewalk, although when he almost collided with the side of a car I wonder in that instance if he would have been better off in the street.
I’m relieved our son was not hurt, but I’m hoping the close call left an impression on him, and that he realizes that although he can ride a bike and thinks he knows the rules, he can’t ever let down his guard. As drivers, we can take away the same lesson and remind ourselves to be vigilant in our cars. It’s easy to be insulated from what’s going on around us with the radio on or kids in the car or—heaven forbid—a phone in your hand. But we can’t be that complacent. I know, I know, I hear some people already: “Don’t tell me how to drive Rieger!” I won’t, but I will challenge myself and other drivers, especially in New Jersey, to recognize October as the month for safe pedestrian and biking awareness. Look for that pedestrian or biker in a crosswalk and know in this state you have to stop for them. Getting to a destination 30 seconds sooner can’t be more important than someone, child or adult, getting across the street safely. Then let your new October habit carry on into November and beyond.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 7 (October, 2014).
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