OEDEL: Another pedestrian down

April 28, 2013 

Five-year-old Ta’Miya Watson didn’t survive her brush with a Bibb school bus turning off Bloomfield Road onto Virginia Drive last Monday afternoon.

Ta’Miya had just walked across five-lane Bloomfield Road from her elementary school, Barden, where she was a lively kindergartner.

After getting help from a crossing guard to navigate Bloomfield, Ta’Miya was almost at her Bloomfield home, at the corner with Virginia, when she stepped off the curb and somehow collided with the bus, fell down, and was crushed. She became another pedestrian death statistic, contributing to Macon’s sorry, long-standing distinction of having the highest rate of pedestrian death in the state, and among the highest in the nation.

Ta’Miya’s death was a tragic accident. Inquiries are appropriately underway to explore the details. Early reports suggest that Ta’Miya stepped backwards off the curb. Some observers questioned whether the bus driver mismanaged the turn, which, if so, wouldn’t be surprising, considering how hard those buses are to turn. Meanwhile, the crossing guard at Bloomfield wasn’t focused on guarding the side-street crossing, nor were Ta’Miya’s parents on hand.

Everyone involved obviously feels terrible about Ta’Miya’s death, and many prayers are with them and Ta’Miya.

If it’s any consolation to the grieving individuals involved, public policy choices played some role in this terrible accident.

The first issue is with school bus safety. School buses are safe for passengers, but less so for pedestrians like Ta’Miya. Fewer than six U.S. children die annually from injuries suffered while riding school buses. More than four times that many are killed when school buses hit them.

What makes school buses so safe for students riding inside are the same things that make school buses relatively dangerous for pedestrians: they’re big, heavy and clunky. We’ve effectively traded safety for kids inside buses for danger to kids and others outside buses. We’ve mistakenly written that trade-off into our laws governing school bus design. Somewhat smaller, nimbler buses with electronic speed restrictors would likely be safer overall.

A second point also jumps out from relevant U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration statistics. Over a recent 10-year period, the 5-to-7 year-old age group was by far the most likely group of pedestrians to suffer death by collision with a school bus -- more killed from that group than from the entire group of youth 8-18. Kids 5-7 are dramatically less wary, and less sturdy, than older kids. We need special precautions for very young, very vulnerable children.

The third point is more general. It’s about the speed of our lives, and how we translate that into our road choices. A sense of urgency is cultivated by our culture to the point that even school bus schedules are programmed down to the minute.

Bloomfield Road, from which the bus was turning, is an overbuilt behemoth, like so many other overbuilt roads in Macon -- largely misguided tributes to some perceived public “need” for speed, which seems pretty silly in Macon’s context. Want bustle? Go to Atlanta.

Ta’Miya’s death reminds us that busy-ness is not worth much if we can’t take time to protect our kids. The bus that crushed Ta’Miya wasn’t speeding, but we don’t know how harried its driver was. We do know she had just turned her lumbering bus left from a five-lane road across three lanes, which can’t have been a calming experience.

People I spoke with in Ta’Miya’s neighborhood detailed for me serious accidents involving kids being struck by vehicles roaring along Bloomfield.

Our overbuilt roads like Bloomfield contribute to Macon’s high pedestrian kill rate. But we’re not obliged to enshrine a hurry-up culture in concrete. And there are ways to calm down our over-amped traffic -- as the “Need for Speed” movie makers showed us by laying down four speed bumps. Our city apparently needs a primer from Hollywood on elementary traffic calming.

In sum, Ta’Miya’s death might well encourage us to reconsider basic school bus design; develop special safety rules for kids 5-7; and quit accelerating our lives, for instance, by supersizing our roads, for speeds we don’t really need.

Oedel teaches transportation law at Mercer.

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