As a child growing up on a farm, I rode to and from school with my mom every school day of my life. She was a librarian at the grade school I attended, so my commute was a breeze. The kids in town walked to school and the kids in the country took the bus. It was simple and uncomplicated in our little world.
But in the suburbs and the city, parents have more options and more hazards. Kids walking or biking to school need to learn safety rules, from watching for traffic to not speaking to strangers.
Carpooling requires some serious scheduling and trust. Taking the bus has its own safety issues: getting to the bus stop and being aware of where the bus is at all times, especially for younger children.
In fact, according to the Chicago Public Schools, many of the accidents between kids and school buses happen to children younger than 9 years old.
The tips below are can enable parents and kids to have a safe school year whether kids are walking, biking, carpooling or taking the bus to school.
1 Stand back. While waiting for the bus, teach your children to stay out of the street. They should not be playing in the street or on the curb. Should someone fall, they could be hit by a passing car or a bus. Many crosswalks have a yellow line drawn a safe distance from the street. Teach kids to stay behind the yellow line and to wait until the bus has pulled to a complete stop before trying to board.
2 Safety in numbers. If your children are walking to the bus without adult supervision, make sure they are walking in large groups. Large numbers can act as a crime deterrent.
3 Research the route. Before the first day of school, research different routes to school. Try to avoid busy streets and cutting through neighbors' yards. Know where your children will be every step along the route. Tom Justie, a stay-at-home dad in Arlington Heights who occasionally walks his son to school, knows there are two routes to school that Ben, age 7, could take.
"One route has one street to cross with a crossing guard and another route with three streets to cross without a guard. Maybe in a couple years we'll consider letting him try it himself," Justie says.
4 Know the neighbors. Don't allow your child to walk or bike to school alone. Meet your neighbors and get to know their children. Suggest they all go to school together or take turns with a neighbor walking younger children to school.
5 Rules of the road. Teach your children what traffic signs mean and how to interpret stoplights and walk symbols. Impress on them that they need to use their eyes and common sense when crossing the road. Tell them not to rely solely on stoplights since drivers can be in a hurry in the morning.
"When we stop at the corner, I make sure Ben looks both ways twice before crossing the street," says Justie. "Even though I'm there, he's learning."
6 Choose safety. That means instructing kids who ride their bikes to school to wear their helmets, stay on the sidewalk and walk their bikes across busy streets.
In Tinley Park, where there are few sidewalks, Nancy Schwab, principle of Memorial School, says the police and fire departments visit the school each September to educate the kids on bicycle safety. And the Tinley Park PTO sells helmets, bike flags and elbow and knee pads at cost to parents to ensure the kids are safe.
7 Get educated. Safety Town, usually sponsored by local charity groups, hold sessions throughout the year to teach kids safety rules from walking to biking.
Call your village hall to find out whether there is Safety Town presentation planned for your area.
8 Choose carpoolers carefully. When coordinating a carpool, make sure you know and trust each parent who will be driving. Don't be reluctant to observe their driving skills or give their SUV a once-over. The safety of your children is at stake and you need to be comfortable with all aspects of the carpool.
Marian Flattum, of Bolingbrook, needs to get two of her children to a private school in Naperville. Michael, 8, attends all-day school; Daniel, 6, is in half-day kindergarten. Flattum participates in two carpools to get both boys to school on time. Luckily for her, she was able to coordinate with another mom she knows from church.
"We've been doing the carpool for three years," says Flattum. "I trust her and I'm comfortable leaving my kids with her."
9 Be strict. When multiple kids are in the car, they tend to get silly. Make sure that while they can have fun interacting that they are always in the proper car seats, buckled up and not throwing anything.
10 Drive carefully. By following posted rules of the road and using caution, adults can avoid hitting children who are waiting for the school bus or walking to school. Drive at or below school-zone speed limits and stay aware of children who may emerge from cars parked on the side of the road. And always, always stop when a school bus is stopped, its lights are flashing and its stop sign is out. Passing a stopped school bus is a serious traffic violation and a dangerous hazard for all of our children.