WATSONVILLE — Thanks to an innovative educational program, grade school students in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties are learning the basic principals of maneuvering safely on the streets, both on foot and on bikes.
Provided by Ecology Action, Bike Smart (est. 2004) and Walk Smart (est. 2016), has led second and fifth graders through classroom presentations, field trips and bicycle rodeos as part of the international Safe Routes to School movement.
The term “Safe Routes to School” was first used in Denmark in the late 1970s as part of a successful initiative to reduce the number of children killed while walking and bicycling to school. Safe Routes to School spread internationally, with programs springing up throughout Europe and in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. The movement is premised on a holistic approach to increasing the number of children walking and bicycling by using the Six E’s: Engineering, Education, Enforcement, Encouragement, Evaluation and Equity.
The bike safety program includes bicycle street skills, classroom presentations, interactive bicycle skills obstacle courses, community rides and bicycle safety education booths at events.
On Wednesday, a crew from Walk Smart visited H.A. Hyde Elementary School for the field trip portion of the program with about 20 students in the second-grade class of Shireen Goudarzi. After each student was outfitted with a safety vest, they headed out to a nearby intersection with four stop signs. There, they put theory to practice as they were brought up to speed about the many hazards of real life traffic, making eye contact with drivers, studying their surroundings and more.
Both programs are grant funded. Kira Ticus, a Senior Program Specialist, who has been with the group since 2009, said they are pieced together through a variety of sources, including the Office of Traffic Safety, Watsonville Police, Measure D funds and the City of Watsonville for the south county programs.
“It’s been really fun working with these kids over the years,” Ticus said. “It’s empowering for the students to learn about safety, and you can tell they’re excited to do this on their own. Of course, it also provides peace of mind for their parents.”
Laura Bakken helps Rafael De Worken, 8, into a safety vest. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian
The courses are thought to be a positive for kids throughout Watsonville, which was ranked first in the number of pedestrians injured or killed among similar-sized cities in the state, according to a 2016 study by the California Office of Traffic Safety. There have been at least two fatal crashes involving pedestrians this year, including one earlier this month on Rodriguez Street that killed a 75-year-old man.
In response, the Watsonville City Council early last year adopted Vision Zero, an initiative first implemented in Sweden in the ‘90s which acknowledges that traffic fatalities are preventable, and aims to come up with solutions to achieve a zero death goal by 2030. San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities have also adopted Vision Zero. Watsonville is the only city in Santa Cruz County to do so.
The City and Watsonville Police have also recently pushed pedestrian and bike safety by hanging banners that read “Safety Zone” and “Don’t Text & Drive” — in both english and Spanish — throughout the Main Street corridor and at other locations throughout the city.
“We have a couple of goals with these banners,” said Watsonville Mayor Francisco Estrada. “One is to educate the public. We want to let everyone know that parts of Watsonville, areas that we feel need a little boost, we want to make sure they’re extra safe for pedestrians and drivers.”
WPD also earlier this month gave out roughly 250 helmets to kids from the community at Callaghan Park.
Walk Smart includes pedestrian training for second-grade students. It includes classroom presentations and on-foot safety training. Students learn the street crossing method “Stop, Look, and Listen” through video, demonstration and discussion. And they practice the method through role-playing, dance and Simon Says.
Presentations are then paired with walking safety training near their school. Students sharpen their skills in observing their surroundings and safe walking practices around common walking hazards like driveways, parked cars, mid-block crossings and traffic signs and signals.
“It’s a fairly challenging program for the students, but for a good reason,” Ticus said. “While we help the students in the field trip to get a good idea of being safe on the street, we also let them know that we will not be there to help them crossing streets in their day to day lives.”
Once students successfully demonstrate that they can cross the street safely, each is presented with a Safe Street Crossers Certificate and asked to share their success with their families.
“It’s also important that we let parents know that their kids have been through the program and have learned some of the basics of safety,” Ticus said.
About 6,000 kids a year go through the programs.
For information on the programs or to learn about volunteer opportunities, contact Ticus at [email protected].
Editor's Note: Tony Nunez contributed to this report.