If you’re a commuter and drive in Hillsborough County, be prepared to have a lot more company during your morning commute starting this week.
Summer is nearly over. Our teachers already are back on the job and getting their classrooms ready. And starting on Tuesday, school buses will be back on the roads, and students will be walking to bus stops or to school.
Every year around this time, we send out a message asking everyone in the community to please be careful and give yourself extra time to get to school or work. We also urge our students to obey the simple rules of pedestrian safety.
We have repeated these messages for as long as I can remember. Sadly, the messages are particularly relevant in the coming year.
Last school year, we had some tragedies and near tragedies involving our students that could have been avoided.
On the last day of school, two students — a brother and sister — were seriously injured crossing the road just a few hundred yards from their middle school campus.
In March, one student died and another was injured when they were struck by a car while crossing a busy section of Hillsborough Avenue. The tragedy drew community attention to the dangerous stretch of road and the failure of pedestrians to obey rules of safety.
We in the school district routinely partner with Tampa police, the sheriff’s office, the Florida Department of Transportation and Hillsborough County to spread the word about pedestrian safety. Our partners frequently visit our schools to deliver the life-saving message and plead with students to take safety into their own hands.
Sadly, the message is not getting through to everyone. We are all aware of the tragedy that occurred on Hillsborough Avenue, but that’s not the only dangerous stretch of road where pedestrians and cars make for a deadly combination.
In a recent study, the Tampa Bay area (including Hillsborough and Pinellas) ranked as the second-worst community for pedestrian safety. As a community, we cannot be satisfied with that.
We have teamed up with local law enforcement, DOT, the county and community groups to raise awareness of pedestrian safety — and to urge motorists to watch out for pedestrians.
Here, at the start of the school year, we are sending out a phone message to all school district families, urging everyone to exercise caution if you’re a pedestrian, and to please slow down if you’re a motorist. We will be on television and on the radio with the same message.
We are distributing to all our schools a brief video in which Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee and I promote pedestrian safety and tell students “Don’t Step into Danger.”
We all want to do our part. None of us want to see another tragedy that could have been avoided.
But pedestrian safety and traffic safety can only be achieved when people change their behavior. It is achieved when a student is careful to cross at the crosswalk. It is achieved when a motorist slows down near the school campus, knowing that students are in a rush to get to class.
Please join us in this safety campaign. We don’t need you to make donations. We don’t need you to sign a petition or volunteer your time. We just need you to follow the simple rules of safety, be in a little less of a rush, and look out for each other — especially our students.
MaryEllen Elia is the superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools.