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How Do You Educate Kids on Street Safety When Drivers Are Dangerous?

Last week, DOT rolled out a new pedestrian safety video for its school-based education programs. Set to a hip-hop beat, the four-minute video is aimed squarely at young New Yorkers. It dissects three scenarios to educate kids about safely navigating city streets. But you'll notice that in two of the scenarios, it's drivers who are breaking the law.

The first scenario features a girl in the crosswalk who looks up from her phone to see a turning driver about to hit her. She's then admonished to look before stepping off the curb and put her phone away. A second scenario shows two young kids in the crosswalk who spot a driver quickly approaching the stop sign and stopping too close to them in the crosswalk. The video advises the children to look before crossing and make eye contact with the driver and wave at her. In neither example does the video say that drivers have a legal or moral obligation to yield to pedestrians.

Kim Wiley-Schwartz, DOT's assistant commissioner for education and outreach, said the program tries to give students traffic safety basics that acknowledge that not everyone on New York City's streets plays by the rules. "This is how kids get killed and injured," she said. "Kids are expecting all drivers to stop."

Similar to DOT's Safety City course, the first two scenarios teach that pedestrians have to do more than obey the law to stay safe on NYC streets. "We're trying to look at the realities of New York. The most important thing we can teach children is to look for turning vehicles," Wiley-Schwartz said. "You cannot count on drivers yielding to you, even though that's the law."

Keep watching, though, and the video's focus on self-preservation over adherence to the law takes a different flavor in its third example. A young boy hops on his skateboard between two parked cars and rides into the street. A driver stops short, before the video freezes and advises children to stop between the parked cars before entering the street, look before crossing, and to cross when it's clear. It never says that mid-block crossings are against the law.

Wiley-Schwartz, who used to work on livable streets education at OpenPlans, Streetsblog's parent organization, says this was intentional. DOT used a mid-block crossing as an example alongside the scenarios with kids in the crosswalk because it's a common behavior. "If you have to cross mid-block, you should know [how]," she said. "The old way of pedestrian education was to say, 'Wait for a walk signal and cross with the walk sign.' That's just not real education that's going to help them."

A longer version of the video, developed by the public-private Safe Streets Fund and funded in part by Toyota, is part of the in-class curriculum DOT brings to schools. Wiley-Schwartz said she expects fourth, fifth, and sixth-graders at nearly 250 schools to see the video this year. The program also includes education for teachers. "We don't want them to tell [the kids] to look left, right, then left again," Wiley-Schwartz said. "We want them to have real conversations with kids about what they can do to protect themselves."

In addition to separate education efforts targeted at adults, the youth education program includes materials for parents [PDF]. "It's a shared responsibility," Wiley-Schwartz said. "The work has to get done with drivers. That is where the work has to come."

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