Jessie Muro's mother cautions him every morning as the 11-year-old escorts four younger siblings five blocks to Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Ana: "Be careful."
On Wednesday, an army of politicians, teachers and police alarmed by a recent rise in pedestrian accidents echoed the same warning to thousands of children participating in the city's first Walk-a-Child-to-School Day.
The message resonated at the hundreds of campuses around the country also participating in the activity, including several in Orange County. But it took on special importance in Santa Ana, which has the highest pedestrian death rate in Southern California.
The event was held on the same day that Santa Ana police announced a crackdown on motorists who don't have valid driver's licenses. The moves come two days after the seventh pedestrian fatality of the year, this one involving a driver with a suspended license.
Organizers said a goal of the children's event was to raise awareness about the special risks of walking to school. A recent study by the Santa Ana Unified School District found nearly half of all the city's pedestrian accidents involved children near schools.
"We are very concerned about our children," said Nadine Rodriguez, principal at Roosevelt Elementary School, which Muro attends. "Our streets are not safe, and therefore our schools are not safe. You educate the whole child. Safety and character are a part of it."
Jessie, who like many children walks without his parents to school and accompanies younger siblings, knows firsthand how dangerous cars can be.
"We see them go fast, past the stop [signs]," he said. "We think about the safety because of the cars."
Jessie and about 1,000 fellow students who walk to Roosevelt Elementary School each day were met Wednesday at checkpoints along their route, where officials offered them drinks, safety tips and asked them to fill out surveys that will be used to improve conditions for pedestrians.
An estimated 5,000 Santa Ana students took part in the event, sponsored by UC Irvine's Pediatric Injury Prevention Research Group, which has studied child pedestrian accidents for several years.
Group director Phyllis Agran said children do not have the visual perception to judge the speed of a car and often cannot be seen by drivers.
Adding to Santa Ana's problems is the high-density population, which means more pedestrians and cars are crammed into neighborhoods.
School crossing guards complain that motorists regularly ignore their signals to yield and often gun through intersections as children cross. The complaints have prompted police to patrol major school crossings more often.
Officers have also begun walking home kids that they find jaywalking and talking to their parents about pedestrian safety.
Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim) attended the event, and said pending bills in the Legislature might help the situation in Santa Ana. The bills would reduce speed limits on local streets and would impose double fines for speeders in school areas.
Even so, he said Santa Ana poses a unique challenge and that educating both pedestrians and motorists may be the best solution.
"Santa Ana is one of those areas where people survive on a day-to-day basis. Walking to and from school, to the market, to the job, is done on a regular basis. People traffic is greater," he said. "This is more of an acute problem than in other places in Orange County."
Other cities in Orange County, including Buena Park and Fullerton, participated in the nationwide Walk-a-Child-to-School Day.
At Woodcrest Elementary School in Fullerton, officials encouraged parents to walk their children to school Wednesday to emphasize both street safety and the benefits of regular exercise.
About 40 families participated, said Monica Schwaniger, health and safety chairwoman of the school's Parent Teacher Association.
Santa Ana parents were still reacting to the news of another fatal pedestrian accident in downtown Santa Ana on Monday. Angelica Saravia, a Bolivian immigrant who worked in a South County restaurant, died shortly after police say she was hit by a car driven by John Tyler Sutake, 40 of Santa Ana.
"You think about [pedestrian safety] because of what happened this week. You wonder how you can control the kids," said mother Rita Landeros, who escorts her four children to school each day.
She isn't always able to join them on their walk home. "The oldest one tells me that the youngest sometimes gets away from him," she said.
While some parents and family members worry about reckless motorists, others pray that their children pay attention on the streets.
"I really wonder if they look before they cross," said Yenny Ramirez of her two younger siblings, who attend Roosevelt. "They just keep walking."
Wednesday afternoon, Santa Ana police held a news conference to announce the second phase of a program targeting unlicensed drivers or those driving with a revoked or suspended license.
Sutake, the driver involved in Monday's incident, had been driving even though his license was suspended because of an earlier hit-and-run episode.
In addition to focusing on community awareness, police will begin operating a hotline--(714) 245-8235--for residents to report "high-risk drivers."
"I think we'll see tremendous community support [for the hotline] to prevent situations like we had on Monday," said Police Lt. Felix Osuna. "We can't do this without the community. They'll be the eyes and ears for the program."
When a driver is reported to the hotline, police will check motor vehicle records to see if the driver has a license. "If we have to, we'll go out and stake out the repeat offenders," Police Sgt. Raul Luna said.