When I first heard that traffic collisions were the leading cause of death for children 2-14 in Los Angeles, I was doubtful of the validity of that fact. After all, you hear all the time about helping to cure childhood cancer or other horrible diseases or stories about drug overdose deaths that are skyrocketing. It couldn't be true that our precious and beautiful (or sometimes not so beautiful) roads are the site of so many childhood fatalities.
I did my own look at the numbers -- nearly 200 people a year are killed in traffic crashes in LA. LA’s annual collision death rate is higher than Chicago, Seattle, or San Diego, and it almost doubles that of New York City and San Francisco. According to the LA Times, only 18% of all trips in Los Angeles are made on foot, but 33% of those killed or severely injured are pedestrians. And here’s where the numbers really show what’s going down: students walking to school and the elderly account for 30% of all people killed or severely injured in pedestrian or bicycle-related crashes. While cancer is a close second, traffic collisions are the leading cause of death for children ages 2 to 14.
So what’s the deal? Well, I couldn't find any specific scientific research on why kids are getting hit in higher numbers (if anyone out here knows of some useful research in this area, please send it to me). Using logic, it makes sense – kids are smaller, harder to see, sometimes running around with less awareness of the dangers of the streets and BAM!
But when I was growing up (dare I share this and date myself), school included the importance of looking both ways before stepping into a street. Where’s that now? LONG GONE! Vital education to save a child’s life has been dropped, because we have to spend more time on reading, writing and math, so no child is left behind. Of course if they get killed crossing the street, then it doesn’t matter if they can read or not!
Okay, I’m getting off my soap box now.
So what to do?
SAFE has always had plans to do direct education in schools but with a small non-profit and a smaller event budget, the resources were just not there. I was lucky enough to meet someone who I really respect – Captain Lopez of the LAPD. At the time I met him, he was the Captain for the Central Traffic Division. Some of you might have various opinions about LAPD, I don’t care, Captain Alfonso Lopez is one of the most dynamic and caring people I’ve ever met in a position of public service. I worked with LAPD on a DUI check-point when I met Captain Lopez and he shared his upset and frustration with having to respond to so many kids getting seriously injured or killed in his zone of responsibility. He also shared his vision in teaching kids about pedestrian safety and the same concern about kids getting hit but, instead of banging his head against the wall with a lack of resources, he decided to take some of his traffic cops off the road and put them in schools to teach kids (4th and 5th graders) how to cross the street safely. He researched other successful programs and just needed some guidance on how to engage and educate kids of this age.
I immediately offered SAFE’s skills in education and curriculum development. In a few weeks, we had our first draft of an education program for 4th and 5th graders. Captain Lopez ordered that a whole unit of LAPD officers reach out to schools and try this program out. That year we reached 25,000 students!!! More importantly, the number of severe injuries and fatalities for kids in the Central Traffic Division area dropped significantly.
This program is expanding! SAFE is directly involved but also LADOT’s Safe Routes to School Unit (kudos to this unit for recognizing the importance of this program) and all the LAPD traffic divisions are going to be educating kids (4th and 5th graders) in their areas. SAFE calls the program SAFE Kids, LAPD and LADOT call it something else more elaborate and difficult to say, but that’s okay.
The target is to first educate kids in the 100 LAUSD schools in the most dangerous areas first and then reach out to all elementary schools – charter, public and private.
So, while SAFE might be small with a tiny budget, by partnering and helping dynamic and forward thinking people like Captain Lopez, we ARE making a difference and saving lives in this city of angels.