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Walk to School Day Delivers a Fresh-Air Message on 2 Hazards

Traffic safety and childhood obesity are the targets of the global event, which brings more footsteps to county schools.

October 09, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

The mile between Porfiria Espinosa's Santa Ana home and her son's school looms like a thousand when she considers the busy thoroughfares that stand between the two.

The streets are too foreboding and the distance too great for Espinosa to want to walk 5-year-old Jose to kindergarten every day. She usually drives him to school.

But on Wednesday morning they and throngs of families from Washington Elementary walked to school to promote traffic safety and fight childhood obesity as part of International Walk to School Day. Nearly 50 Orange County schools participated in the event along with an estimated 3 million walkers worldwide in such countries as South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

"It's a little far, especially when I'm running late, but I realized today I should try to do it more often," Espinosa said.

Many of the 1,400 students who attend Washington, Santa Ana's largest elementary school, must cross busy streets -- including Warner Avenue and Flower and Bristol streets-- to get there. Espinosa must cross all three.

But the more parents who walk to school, the safer it is because it cuts down on congestion from those who drive their children, said Carolyn Mertz, the Parent Teacher Assn. vice president at Buena Terra Elementary in Buena Park, where the event was held for the second year Wednesday.

"If parents felt their children were safe, they would let them walk to school," Mertz said. "As it stands now, the way people drive around schools is insane."

As at many other California schools, budget woes have eliminated crossing guards at Buena Terra, when cuts to bus service have forced even more students to walk.

That's why Washington Elementary parent Maria Flores always walks her fifth-grade son, Jonathan Ibarra, to school.

"It gives me peace of mind," Flores said as they strolled down Flower Street in the crisp morning air. A trio of student volunteers on the corner had just planted an "I Walk to School!" sticker on Jonathan's T-shirt, and rock music blared from a nearby car as Flores pulled him a little closer to her.

"Thank you for walking to school!" chirped young girls on each corner around the campus as families smiled back.

Parents who participate in Walk to School Day fill out questionnaires and give feedback on their experiences. At Washington, those responses have translated into such safety improvements as a new student drop-off area marked with a white curb and orange cones, and a repainted crosswalk at one intersection that the city had eliminated.

School literacy program coordinator Cathy Kazanjy, who has coordinated the walking event in the past, said parents have complained about uneven sidewalks and the speed at which people drive through the intersections.

Despite the number of years that Walk to School Day has been held -- since 1994, when a few British schools piloted the event -- drivers need to be constantly reminded to be more careful in school zones, said UC Irvine traffic safety project coordinator Elaine Maae. The university hospital's pediatric injury prevention research group provides most of the materials county schools need to run their events.

"Everyone's in too much of a rush nowadays," Maae said. "They forget that even at 5 miles an hour, a car can still do a lot of damage to a child."

Last year, 194 traffic accidents in Orange County involved pedestrians 5 to 14 years old, according to the UCI research group.

"It made me feel safer today when I saw how many other families also walk to school," said Espinosa. "It's an effort for us to walk here, but I understand the importance."

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