As concerned parents, we would like to clear up some confusion regarding the circumstances at the crosswalk between the high school and the civic center. The ORPD recently implemented changes in an attempt to address real and quantifiable dangers at this location. Consider the fact that 50-75 students use this crosswalk daily and that this section of the Turnpike experiences a large volume of traffic, especially before and after school. The 20mph school zone with flashing yellow lights was put in place only two years ago. Prior to this change, a student was struck by a moving vehicle and the city settled the matter outside of public purview.
Since the beginning of the school year, near misses of students and/or the crossing guard have occurred on a daily basis except when police have been present. Countless witnesses have reported these incidents to the ORPD and city staff. As publicly acknowledged by our police chief, poor visibility and irresponsible drivers are largely to blame. Though statistics are not available, it is clear that the change of the high school main entrance to the OR Turnpike this past fall has exacerbated the problem.
We first brought these issues to the attention of the city and the school board in mid-October, and the high school crossing guard has since shared her concerns with Chief Beams on a weekly basis. We have provided, below, an exhaustive list of the improvements that have been suggested along with the responses we have received.
Changes that have been or will be implemented
In response to a request to increase public awareness and enforcement of the speed zone and new pedestrian law, Mr. O’Connor stated during the Oct 20th city council meeting that the ORPD would start issuing citations. In a follow-up email this month, Chief Beams reported that 67 citations had been issued.
Shortly after the Oct 20th meeting, a request to increase the time of the high school crossing guard’s hours and the speed zone was granted, and both were extended to 4 in the afternoon. A flashlight was also provided to that same crossing guard.
Initially, Mr. O’Connor stated that there would be a single dedicated police officer starting Oct 27th to specifically direct traffic. However, police presence diminished almost entirely shortly after this change was made. Subsequently, in an email dated Jan 8th, Chief Beams stated: “Effective immediately the Police Department will have a police officer assigned to the Oak Ridge High School crossing location at the Civic Center during the school zone time in the morning and afternoon…As staffing permits, we may have additional units at the ORHS location for enforcement purposes.” Since this email, as many as 3 officers have been present at this location and as many as 2 more have frequently been spotted patrolling the high school area.
During the Oct 20th city council meeting, Mr. O’Connor committed to Ms. Miller that the city would set up the radar speed sign trailers to warn drivers approaching speed zone. However, technical problems prevented them from being set up until mid-January.
Another suggestion strongly endorsed by the Karns’ safety officer was to increase visibility with an LED Lit Stop Sign. This was conveyed to the city on Oct 16th, and, this month, the city ordered and provided one to the high school crossing guard.
Per Chief Beams’ email, dated January 8th, the ORPD ordered new reflective vests and caps for all the crossing guards. Prior to his email, citizens had also ordered new reflective vests with LED lights. These vests have been donated to the police department and are to be provided to the crossing guards.
In October, the city projected that red light and speed cameras would be implemented within 90 days. They plan to place one of each at the Tulane/OR Turnpike intersection. As of January, implementation efforts between the city, the vendor, and TDOT are ongoing. No definitive date for installation has been set, though the city expects that they will be operational shortly before the school year ends in April 2009.
Changes which have neither been acknowledged nor denied by local government
Reflective devices known as flashers were given to the Robertsville students who participated in the “Walk This Way” program last fall. We requested that students at Jefferson Middle School and the High School who walk or bike to school while it is still dark be provided these flashers; we have no knowledge of any schools providing these to their students.
The Karns’ safety officer who works between the middle and elementary schools highly recommended hiring a second crossing guard to assist from the opposite side of the street at the High School crossing. The cost of about $100 per week would be split between the city and schools. No response from the city or schools has been provided since we first proposed the idea in October.
Changes no longer under consideration by local government
It has been proposed by many that the schools re-route traffic leaving the high school parking lot to the exit at N. Tulane Ave, temporarily making the high school Turnpike access one way (only allowing traffic to enter) during school start and release times. According to emails between Dr. Bailey and Mr. O’Connor, the schools do not believe this to be a viable solution.
A request to TDOT was made around the start of school to install a speed table (aka speed bumps). As of this month, TDOT has denied the request to install speed tables on Oak Ridge Turnpike between the High School and Civic Center.
During the Oct 20th city council meeting, Ms. Smith inquired about moving the crosswalk to Tulane. Mr. O’Connor explained that kids will take a direct path before going out of their way to go to another crosswalk. Those headed for the civic center or library would be more likely to take the risk of crossing where they do now even if a crosswalk were absent.
Possible Permanent Solutions – but currently not under serious consideration
The installation of a traffic light has been inquired about since at least Oct 16th. Per Mr. O’Connor, the city has not pursued installing a traffic light at this particular location primarily because it comes with a $100K price tag. He also said that they would need TDOT to sign off on it if they chose to pursue it. In an email dated Nov 6th, he stated “There is no funding for a signal light so we will continue to use a police officer during the appropriate times.”
A pedestrian bridge between the high school and the civic center has been a topic of discussion for over a year now. Many citizens believe this would be the best permanent solution since it would provide safe passage not only for students, but also for citizens and visitors during city events. According to the city engineer’s December 2007 report, the cost to construct a bridge is roughly $1million. Neither the city nor the school indicates that they are pursuing this possibility further. However, both the mayor and the city manager have stated that they would welcome private funding if it were offered.
Finding a Way Forward
Until recently, Oak Ridge has been sorely lacking in its attention to the safety of student pedestrians, especially when compared to neighboring cities and many states, where fines are often doubled and tripled for motorist violations in a school zone. Much thought and attention have been given to the possible solutions and, thankfully, positive changes have occurred. However, there is still room for improvement and a strong desire for a permanent solution. It is our duty to remain vigilant, especially about our children.
We recognize the enormous tasks and constraints facing our local government and encourage their willingness to make student safety a priority. We, too, are concerned about the crime problem, here, in Oak Ridge. The presence of an officer to direct traffic during school zone hours has been the most effective help for pedestrians crossing safely. Additional officers are appreciated, but have not been requested nor promised. It is the duty of our police department to “Protect and Serve” our city which includes both deterring crime and reinforcing pedestrian and traffic safety. We believe both are possible when resources are distributed wisely.
We also acknowledge that you simply cannot please everyone even part of the time; but to those anonymous citizens as well as the more notable, please don’t project that we (and others) are hyper-sensitive without basis. We are aware of at least 3 students who have been victims of traffic accidents at crosswalks in recent years and actively educate ourselves on the dangers all of our children face. We will continue to work towards reducing their risks and we urge leaders and citizens alike to do so as well until reasonable, permanent solutions are achieved.