I was driving west on Wisconsin Avenue last week at about 3:20 in the afternoon when something happened that stuck with me.
As I approached the corner at Glenview Avenue, there was a county bus stopped at the curb. I had a green light, so I proceeded past it in the main traffic lane, slowing a bit for caution.
Just as I was passing, a school crossing guard took a step out from in front of the bus, waving his handheld stop sign. I couldn't even begin to stop, so I swerved a bit away from him and kept going, while he quickly retreated to the cover of the bus.
I didn't really come close to hitting him, but I was, for a moment, shocked and appalled with myself. I thought, "What have I done? I failed to stop for a crossing guard! I must be one of those drivers!"
I looked anxiously in my rear-view mirror and saw the scene played out twice more in quick succession. Cars following me came past the bus, and in each case the crossing guard popped out, waved his sign futilely, and jumped back as the cars came on without slowing.
After a very short reflection, I came to a realization: This was not my fault, or the other drivers'. In fact, there was no way that crossing guard should have been trying to do this. There was no way anyone could have seen him or a child at that corner, completely obscured by the bus.
The guard should, of course, have waited for the bus to leave. For that matter, there's a traffic light at that corner, so what business did he have trying to stop traffic on a green light in the first place?
This put me in mind of several stories I've written recently, and a later meeting that deserves some coverage.
It's not just one problem, but many
After a boy was hit by a car early in November on Wauwatosa Avenue north of Longfellow Middle School, suffering a badly broken leg, there was something of an outcry for a review of school zone safety. That led me to interview Sarah Lerand, a McKinley Elementary parent, Ald. Jeff Roznowski and McKinley Principal Mark Carter about the Safe Routes to School program they had initiated.
As Carter pointed out, the program was working because it was truly comprehensive – Lerand, Roznowski and other parents were looking at every aspect of traffic safety, gathering hard data and instituting solutions that went directly to each problem.
Among those problems was a lack of confidence in some of the crossing guards, or at least a perception that not all of them had the training to do their jobs as well as they might. Moreover, there was a disconnect with the guards; even though children might meet them every day, few parents knew them or interacted with them.
That changed after Lerand's parent committee introduced a crossing guard ambassador program in which parents were assigned to meet regularly with them and discuss safety questions. The McKinley group also met with the president of the company that provides the guards and shared their concerns.
Things have improved markedly around McKinley, but my recent experience suggests to me that the same is not true everywhere. And I do not mean to say that crossing guards are the only problem or even the main problem. Getting the guards in synch with safety is just one element of comprehensive school zone safety.
The main problem, without question from anyone, remains careless drivers. Which brings me to the video accompanying this article.
When should safety trump traffic flow?
At a recent meeting of the Common Council's Traffic and Safety Committee, a general discussion of school zone safety had been put on the agenda after the accident near Longfellow. Present were Police Chief Barry Weber, Fire Chief Rob Ugaste and Public Works Director Bill Porter.
Ugaste and his firefighters respond to emergencies involving injury, but while they might well make note of conditions they consider unsafe, they do not set traffic policies.
Porter and his traffic engineers do set policy. They listen to the police and fire departments as well as to citizens, but ultimately they must balance their decisions based on a variety of concerns including not only public safety but also the need for optimizing traffic flow.
Weber and his police officers are charged with enforcement of traffic laws – and because there was already general agreement in the room that scofflaw drivers were the single greatest problem, most eyes turned to him.
Weber minced few words in explaining that enforcement could only take the city so far. There always have been and will always be, he said, "idiot drivers," no matter how many you pull over and no matter how many signs and flashing lights you put up.
"I don't have enough officers to cover every school every day without leaving the rest of our community at risk," he said.
Weber also pointed out that every school in the city had been located at a time long before anyone had imagined the volume of traffic that would overtake them.
There seemed to be almost a general sigh in the committee chamber. It was true, of course, what the chief was saying, and it seemed difficult to see how a greater level of school safety could be realistically achieved.
Victim's father puts it in pictures
A man seated quietly and alone then raised his hand to speak. He introduced himself as John McNally, the father of 12-year-old Rylan, who had been the victim of the accident on Wauwatosa Avenue at Wright Street.
McNally spoke softly, humbly and a bit haltingly. It was almost as if he felt a bit deflated, too, at the knotty problem confronting everyone. He simply asked that the city take another look at what he considered to be a very unsafe intersection where a hurried driver had passed a stopped car on the right – passed a car stopped for a crossing guard, as it turned out – and had plowed into his son.
Then McNally asked to show a video he had taken. He had gone out on a random schoolday morning and shot footage of traffic on Wauwatosa Avenue at Wright, looking south toward North Avenue.
Beginning around 7:30 a.m., the video shows sparse traffic quickly building to heavy traffic as the hour approaches 8 and schoolchildren try to make their way to Longfellow. More and more cars swing around those stopped to turn. Some drive constantly in the parking lane. Many appear to be speeding, including some large trucks. A crossing guard appears, clearly trying to do his job but clearly intimidated.
The mood in the committe room changed rather remarkably. When the video was over, Chief Weber said, "If I was that crossing guard, I wouldn't step off that curb."
This from a man with 39 years as a police officer.
Even bad drivers need good direction
Suddenly, everyone saw this as something more than an enforcement problem. Wauwatosa Avenue is the width of four lanes at Wright Street, but there are no lanes painted on the street. There is a flashing yellow light hanging high above and about half a block away from Wright, but most drivers don't notice it. It is driven like a free-for-all not only because of bad driving habits but because of poor layout and a lack of clarity.
And so, also suddenly, solutions started to fly. At least paint some lanes, couldn't we, for starters? How about a "no left turn" policy at Wright? How about putting out in-street pedestrian signs, such as there are in the Village and near McKinley School?
Lerand was present, too, to talk about the McKinley approach.
Porter said he would have his engineers begin looking at those ideas and more, and in the end, there was a significantly more hopeful air in Committee Room 2. Maybe something more could be done. Maybe this one corner, at least, could be made safer.
It is my hope for Wauwatosa that, in the coming year, Porter, Weber, Ugaste and their staffs, plus a lot more parents and drivers, will not only keep this one discussion alive but will keep it moving toward safety solutions around every school in the district.
Many problems seem abstract when you only talk about them. When you take the time to actually go look at them – or to make people look at them, as John McNally and Sarah Lerand have – they often seem much more real, much more demanding of answers, and much more solvable.
Rylan McNally, by the way, is well on the mend, his father said. He had been back at school for awhile and had just a few days before gotten out of a wheelchair and onto crutches. As a seventh-grader, he still has a year-and-a-half of navigating to Longfellow in front of him.