Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Crashes due to distracted walking near schools on the rise

By Stephanie Earls Published: October 21, 2013

Christina Morris-Ward was 15 when she was struck by a car and killed last October as she crossed an intersection on the way to her Germantown, Md., high school.

The driver who hit her had a green light and didn't see Morris-Ward until it was too late. The teen was wearing dark clothes, had headphones in her ears and was carrying her cellphone.

All assumptions about what led to that deadly scenario point to a single culprit: distracted walking. A new study by Safe Kids Worldwide finds that one in five high school students and one in eight middle school students cross the street while distracted and possibly engaging with a device.

With technology ubiquitous and students on the streets heading to and from campuses, the issue has become a more pressing concern for parents and administrators.

It's quite common to see students listening to music or talking on cellphones on their way to school, Carmel Middle School principal Steve Thiessen said.

"We've gotten into a technological habit so much that it's almost a nonstop thing," said Thiessen, who suggests parents first modify their own habits. "Kids are going to model what we do, and if they see us as parents texting or talking on a cellphone, they're going to model that behavior."

At Palmer High School, where the campus spans several high-traffic intersections and students are free to head off-site for lunch, pedestrian safety is stressed year-round.

"You put that many kids in a school in the middle of that many busy intersections, it's a recipe for something bad to happen," said Devra Ashby, District 11 spokesperson.

The school, with enrollment near 2,000, traditionally sees at least one pedestrian accident each year, principal Lara Disney said.

"But last year," she added, "was worse."

During the 2012-2013 school year, four pedestrian-car accidents involving Palmer students were reported to police; driver error was to blame in three cases. An official report was not filed for two additional incidents, said Brian Corrado, the Colorado Springs Police Department resource officer at Palmer.

The disturbing trend is a sign that increased awareness desperately is needed on both sides of the wheel, he said.

"We're learning how to walk and talk in a whole new way," Corrado said. "I think we can all agree that distracted driving and distracted pedestrians don't mingle very well."

Though he stops short of suggesting handheld technology is to blame, Dr. Jeremy Ellias, an emergency room physician at Memorial Hospital, has seen a rise in the number of children, teens and young adults involved in auto-pedestrian accidents over the past decade.

"I have no idea whether they're texting or talking because when they come in here they're just injured, but I certainly wouldn't be surprised by that at all," said Ellias, whose hospital specializes in pediatric trauma care. "It's something that occurs regularly, especially downtown on the weekends. It makes sense that they're probably distracted when it happens."

Because of the tremendous amount of energy transferred in a crash, auto-pedestrian accidents often involve broken bones and traumatic damage to the head, brain and spinal cord, Ellias said.

Fortunately, most injuries to Palmer students last year were minor, Disney said, but one student still is dealing with the symptoms that accompany a concussion.

"What we try to explain to our kids is, even if they're doing what they're supposed to be doing, that doesn't mean everyone else is," Disney said. "Many of our accidents last year were exactly that kind of situation."

It's a common sight, she admits: Students (and even teachers) brandishing electronic devices, walking with gazes downcast.

"We tell our kids it's a safety issue even when they're walking down the hallway with their cellphone out," Disney said. "They'll walk right into you and not have any clue that they're doing it."

On the streets, a pedestrian not only must follow the rules of foot traffic but stay aware of fast-moving surroundings on multiple fronts. If a driver does something unexpected, or even illegal, an aware pedestrian might still have time to take evasive action to avoid harm, Corrado said.

"The term we use here is 'keep your head on a swivel,'" he said. "Cars are coming from every direction. Whether you're at fault or not is irrelevant if you've been hit by a 4,000-pound car."

As a direct result of the increase in auto-pedestrian accidents near Palmer, Corrado began working with the city in February to install additional signs and cameras at the busy intersections and crosswalks around the school. Now, neon green signs alert drivers they're in an area of high foot traffic and that they must yield to pedestrians.

In addition, each year the education and safety group Drive Smart Colorado stages a dramatized accident near the school, with professional makeup artists and actors playing the ill-fated roles. Most recently, the staged drama was meant to depict the aftermath of a fatal auto-pedestrian accident.

"For some of the kids, it probably hit home," Corrado said. "We hope it did."

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Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364

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