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We need to promote safer school travel

Published: Friday, Aug. 16, 2013 11:23 a.m. CST

Next week, school will begin for students in the Newton Community School District.

Now is the time for parents to review safe traveling with their children. It also is time for drivers to take the extra few seconds necessary to ensure they are watching out for youngsters who are walking or riding bikes to school.

Thankfully, the community hasn't had any serious problems with student pedestrian traffic. Like everyone else, we would like to keep it that way. That's why we would like to recommend Iowa's Safe Routes to School program.

The federally funded program was launched in 2005, and was supposed to sunset after five years. However, it was refunded by Congress, and currently continues to receive funding, which is funneled to the individual states.

The Iowa Department of Transportation administers the funds allocated to our state. The program's purposes are:

• to encourage and enable children — including those with disabilities — to walk and bicycle to school;

• to make walking and bicycling to school both safer and more appealing; and

• to facilitate the planning, development and implementation of projects that will improve safety and reduce traffic, fuel consumption and air pollution in and around schools.

Safe Routes to School provides funding for necessary infrastructure, such as sidewalks and bicycle paths, with would benefit the entire community. And, the program does not require match funding from the community before a project is considered.

Some of the types of projects eligible for this type of funding include:

• pedestrian and bicycle crossing improvements;

• sidewalk improvements;

• speed reduction and "traffic calming" improvements; and

• planning, design and construction of any project that improves the ability of students to walk or bicycle to school.

One of the primary reasons the program has continued to receive funding through Congress is because of the increasing number of young people who are obese. In the past 30 years, the obesity rate for children ages 2 to 5 has doubled, while the rate has tripled for children ages 6 to 11.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. For many children, this could be achieved simply by walking or bicycling to school.

When more students are walking or bicycling to school, traffic volumes at school drop-off points decrease, making those areas more pedestrian-friendly. It also cuts down on the number of "short trips" — which are less fuel efficient and more damaging to engines — parents will make with their family vehicles.

Beyond the infrastructure, and the health and environmental benefits, Safe Routes to School also facilitates two additional programs we would encourage the community to consider. Walking School Bus and Bike Train provide adult-supervised travel to and from school and teach safety by identifying safest routes to school and instilling safe travel habits.

This would be a big undertaking for the entire community. No one person can make it happen, nor can it be accomplished overnight. But, we need to start somewhere. The time to begin, however, needs to be now.

The stakeholders — the school district, the City of Newton, PTA organizations and local service organizations — must come together to talk about this important need.

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