Street Smarts: SF’s Kids Aren’t the Ones Who Need a Lesson on Safe Streets

Photo: Aaron Bialick

How to walk on city streets, and to fear cars while doing so, is something that’s taught to small children everywhere. Once those kids grow up and get driver’s licenses, however, teaching the same kids to avoid running over other people doesn’t seem to be a major part of the curriculum.

It’s been generations since the days when streets were places where kids were expected to walk and play, and drivers were held responsible for keeping them safe. These days, nobody bats an eye when the onus for street safety is put onto school children.

A program called “LA Street Smarts,” using video games and set simulations of city streets to train kids how to navigate without getting hit by negligent drivers, arrived at Lakeshore Elementary this week to sharpen its students’ survival skills. The SF Chronicle reported on the “innovative workshop”:

A group of third-graders waved their hands and screamed – “Stop!” – as a car slowly backed toward them from a garage. The children weren’t in danger of becoming San Francisco’s latest pedestrian casualties, though…

Students began by playing “Ace’s Adventure,” a video game in which second- and third-graders navigate an avatar through a neighborhood on a virtual walk to school, crossing streets and learning to obey signals.

The youths then took what they learned to a life-size replica streetscape called “Richie’s Neighborhood” set up in the school’s auditorium. The model is named after former state Sen. Richard Alarcón’s 3-year-old son, who was killed in a traffic accident in 1987.

Instructors led the pupils through a series of scenarios designed to teach them when it’s safe to cross the street, whom to call for help when chasing a wayward ball, and how to avoid being distracted around traffic.

This program isn’t anomalous — similar traffic safety education programs can be found anywhere. But the great effort invested into it points to the underlying cost of streets that have been designed to move automobiles first, a sacrifice that’s long been forgotten in our society.

As pointed out in the Dangerous by Design 2014 report released today by Smart Growth America [PDF], fast-moving cars pose a particular risk to kids:

Children are especially vulnerable to pedestrian injury because their smaller size makes them less visible to motorists. But they are also at risk because their ability to judge the travel speed of oncoming traffic is not yet fully developed. A recent study of perceptions of children aged 6 to 11 found that they lack the ability to detect vehicles moving faster than 20 mph. They don’t see the cars coming.

San Francisco’s leaders seem to be picking up on the need to redesign city streets for slower speeds. Sixty percent of pedestrian crashes occur on deadly “arterials” that make up just 6 percent of city streets.

But even as SFPD data shows the vast majority of pedestrian injuries are caused by drivers, there’s no comparable education effort in California — particularly during the inadequate drivers’ license training on offer — to put drivers through simulated games in which they’re endangering children.

And traffic violence in SF isn’t a result of kids and adults walking around without a healthy sense of fear. Six-year-old Sofia Liu and her family did nothing illegal or dangerous when a driver ran them over in a crosswalk at Polk and Ellis Streets last New Year’s Eve, killing Liu.

At a recent hearing, Supervisor Scott Wiener cited a survey which found that unsafe streets were the third most commonly-named reason that families are leaving San Francisco. In one way or another, kids in SF seem to be heeding the message: jump out of the way.

  • Guest

    Can I suggest editing the quoted block to say “killed in a traffic [collision]”?

  • davistrain

    Ideally, we would have much tighter driver licensing procedures in the US, more like (for example) Germany. If driver license tests did emphasize watching out for “vulnerable users” and weeded out the marginal drivers, our streets might be safer, but the automobile industry wouldn’t sell as many cars and the petroleum industry wouldn’t sell as much gasoline. I would suspect that any move to make licenses harder to get and easier to lose would receive subtle opposition from these interests. (heck, even non-injury collisions generate spare-parts sales)

  • gneiss

    It’s not just those interests. Much of the resistance to changing the existing paradigm comes from ordinary voters. We have prosecutors and judges who are elected or appointed by elected officials who routinely discount the overarching responsibility that motorists have in keeping our streets safe.

    When we can’t even prosecute a professional driver despite video documented violation of the law, we have a sickness within our society. It says that the prosecutors don’t think an ordinary person would find making a right turn into a bike lane while someone was riding there is a negligent act. In the words of the San Mateo District Attorney who similarly failed to indict the driver who killed Joy Covey by turning left in front of her, It’s just a tragic accident”.

    People used to think that driving while drunk was no big deal. What we need to move towards is convincing ordinary people that driving is a big deal. That getting into your car is not a simple and casual act. That drivers need to take the same responsibility that people who fly commercial planes take, and that the people walking and riding bikes are *not* as responsible for insuring safety on our streets. That instead it is up to car drivers to watch out for them, not the other way around.

    The only way we can make changes, is to continue to fight for more rational use of our streets and to alter the way people perceive them to be places for people rather than cars. I think Chuck Marohn said it best in his post about bikers following the rules that we need to attack this from a position of value. How do we create value from our streets in the city? And the answer is our streets are more valuable if they are for people first, rather than cars first.

  • JJ94117

    I witnessed a woman nearly get run over by a driver making a right turn on a side street and not seeing her. Luckily, the woman was agile enough and the driver stopped before making serious contact. My 3 yr old was able to witness this which was a much more effective tool than talking to her about the boy her age that got run over out in the Richmond and was seriously injured. On the other hand, my 9-yr old went to BiRite for ice cream by himself last night for the first time. In other words, my kids learn how to walk safely in the streets because we walk all over the place and they learn first-hand by seeing and we teach them to understand that they are not easily seen and to always looks for turning vehicles.
    On the other hand, driving seems to be something that has morphed from a privilege to a right. There are many places to point the finger here; however, society has it that we have to get everywhere in a hurry, and the automobile is an enabler to that mentality. The focus (of a program like VisionZero) needs to be on engineering the travel pathways (streets, sidewalks, bikeways) for the most vulnerable users, as well as education for the most dangerous.
    In educating the most dangerous, incentives ($) could be set up through the DMV as well as the insurance industry, to take regular training. The technology is there that one could have take a test in order to renew their driver’s license. They already allow you to take online training to wipe a ticket away. I would also imagine that insurance companies could be successful by offering a 5% discount by taking an online safety training course every year. The course would have to be effective, entertaining and relevant to where one lives, as well as updated regularly. If getting something like this going at the state level is too broad, the City could implement similar linked to the proposed VLF by offering discounts for taking training courses.

  • Bruce

    Great article in Yahoo News today about Sofia Liu, Cooper Stock (child killed in NY by taxi driver), and the dangers of auto-centric street design: http://news.yahoo.com/cooper-s-story–a-preventable-traffic-tragedy-200552242.html

  • davistrain

    I’ve been retired for over 8 years now, but the mention of periodic re-training jogged my memory. I worked for a major electric utility, and employees whose duties included driving a company vehicle were required to take a behind the wheel Defensive Driving class every two years. Typical setup was three students and an instructor would get in a company car and the students would trade off. The ones who weren’t driving would join the instructor in observing and critiquing the person at the wheel. We’d spend the better part of a day out in our service territory, having bad habits that had crept into our driving brought to our attention.

  • 94103er

    Thanks for posting this. Should be required reading for every top-brass city official and SFMTA, etc, but why get our hopes up? What works around here is business as usual of blithely ignoring the glaringly obvious truth of what needs to be done. Anywho, extra kudos to the author for sticking it to Ed Lee.

  • Filamino

    Why don’t you get out of your cave and look around and see all the safety improvements done in the City? Oh wait, you can’t because you just want to feel better by bullying others. Pathetic.