Crossing guards Tammy Imlay and Dean Hartke declare without hesitation that the crosswalk at Central Avenue and Parkside Drive is safer for children than it was two years ago, before the installation of button-activated strobe lights.
Equipped with bright vests and stop signs, the pair have guarded the intersection for years to help children cross Central safely to and from Parkside Elementary School.
Now city and school officials are pointing to that experience — even though it’s anecdotal — as proof that similar flashing-light installations related to the Safe Routes to School initiative will work just as well.
Safe Routes to School is a project of Reach Healthy Communities that draws together city planners and engineers, the parks department, representatives of Columbus Regional Health, neighborhood organizations and private businesses to encourage biking and walking to school while at the same time making those healthy activities safe.
Kelli Thompson, director of health services for the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. and a program coordinator for Reach Healthy Communities, said the initiative focuses on
encouragement, education and engineering.
The encouragement piece gives punch cards to students who redeem them every nine weeks for safety-oriented prizes, like reflective shoe laces.
The education piece includes a safety video people can view on the YouTube website and bicycle rodeos conducted periodically through the year.
The engineering piece encourages sidewalks, bicycle parking, lighting and traffic control improvements near Lincoln, Richards, Parkside, Schmitt, Smith, Southside and Taylorsville elementary schools and Central and Northside middle schools.
A push from concerned parents and Safe Routes to School helped persuade the city about two years ago to lower the speed limit and install flashing lights at Central and Parkside.
In late 2013, city officials hope to take the next step by using a $487,500 Federal Highway Administration grant to install strobe lights at:
n Marr Road near Columbus East High School.
n Home Avenue near Columbus North High School.
n 27th Street near Schmitt Elementary.
n River Road and Royal Street near Parkside Elementary.
n Lindsey Street near the entrance to Mill Race Park.
City Engineer Dave Hayward said some sidewalk and People Trail connections near Richards Elementary and Parkside likely will happen next year and will be paid for specifically with state money earmarked for Safe Routes to School.
The improvements all started with the intersection of Central and Parkside, where Imlay and Hartke said the flashing strobe lights clearly have made crossing Central Avenue safer.
Imlay, who has been a crossing guard for 17 years, mostly at that intersection, said fewer motorists “blow through” the intersection, probably because the strobes help their visibility.
Hartke, who has been a crossing guard for about 12 years, mostly at that intersection, said he himself feels safer now when they have to step out in traffic so people can cross.
“I believe it’s made everyone safer,” said Chris Smith, principal of Parkside Elementary School. “It helps visibility, especially now that we’re in that time of the year when it’s still dark outside when the students are coming to school.”
Smith said parents used to complain to him that cars drove past the crosswalk without slowing down, putting their children in jeopardy.
But since the strobes were installed, he has had only positive feedback about the added safety.
Hard statistics do not exist to quantify the perceived safety improvements at the intersection.
Hayward said that’s because no pedestrians to his knowledge were hit at the crossing either before or after the strobe lights were installed.
“The people who would know say it’s safer,” Hayward said. “We count on them.”
Kelly Lemley, the parent of two students, one of whom still goes to Parkside, said she wanted crosswalk improvements for years and pushed the city to make it happen.
But she said it wasn’t until Thompson from Safe Routes to School got involved that the improvements happened.
“Two crossing guards just weren’t enough,” Lemley said.
“At certain times of the year, more than 100 students were walking through that intersection each and every day.”
Thompson said she would begin gathering data soon from parents of the entire student body at Parkside to see if they agree that the strobes have made the crosswalk safer.