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Back-to-school commute? Do your homework, be smart

Deanna Mickle makes sure she backs her car in each evening when she gets home from work. At least she does during the school year, because backing out of her house on a school morning is not an option.

“If my car is not pointed out, I’ll never get out of my driveway,” says Mickle, who lives in Florence and commutes into Jackson where she works at the architectural firm Barlow Eddy Jenkins, P.A. “I have to add 20 minutes to my commute when school is in because not only do I have to get through the Florence school traffic, I’ve got to go through Richland, too.”

Motoring through the City of Florence is a breeze most of the time. But when the city’s schools are in session, the morning traffic on Main Street/Highway 469 can stretch for miles. And that situation is certainly not unique to Florence.

Communities large and small have school traffic issues, and are dealing with those problems through a wide array of efforts. The motoring public also has responsibilities to ensure safe, smart commuting and can implement strategies that take the stress out of school-day traveling.

Windshield time

According to Cookie Leffler, coordinator of the Safe Routes to School Program (SRTS) at the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), private vehicles driving children to school increases traffic on the nation’s roadway by approximately 25%. Not only does this make accidents more likely, it increases the odds that the victims of those accidents will be children.

Currently, MDOT does not have details on the number of accidents in the state involving school transportation, but the department has just hired someone to do just that.

Still, Leffler does not need figures to tell her that school traffic and corresponding concerns are a serious problem. She recommends common sense solutions – leave earlier and slow down, stay off the cell phone, don’t eat and drive, etc.

However, she and her program recommend much more far-reaching solutions than these. The goal of Mississippi’s SRTS program is to aid communities in planning, developing and implementing programs that encourage children to walk or bike to school safely. The program provides federal funds to communities to assist with infrastructure needs such as sidewalks, crosswalks and bike paths, as well as non-infrastructure needs such as safety and/or traffic education.

One community taking advantage of the program’s funding and its dual offering is Amory. The community has received the largest grant from the Mississippi SRTS program, and is in the process of improving its infrastructure and providing increased awareness through education.

According to Carol Rogers, health, safety and wellness coordinator for the city’s schools, the district was facing a child safety issue. One school was located in a neighborhood of crowded houses and narrow streets bordered by ditches. Children were obligated to travel these streets, forcing them into high-traffic areas.

With SRTS funding, the city was able to construct a broader access road to the school, and ditches were filled in so children could stay well of the roads. More infrastructure is planned, including the goal of developing a bike/walking path that extends from downtown Amory all the way out to the farthest school.

Rogers adds that the community also plans education programs, designed to teach both children and parents ways to be safe going to and from school.

Two efforts the SRTS pushes is the Walking School Bus and Bike Train. Both organize children into groups to walk or pedal to school using a safe route and supervised by a designated adult. Not only does this cut congestion, but it helps with two other problems, too.

“It improves the air quality around the schools by reducing the number of automobiles on the road,” Leffler says. “And, Mississippi has a real problem with childhood obesity. Encouraging children to walk or ride their bicycle to school can help with that problem and promotes more physical activity.”

For more information on SRTS, visit www.goMDOT.com/SRTS/.

Time management

Leaving earlier on school-morning commutes increases safety, cuts down on stress and saves time. The increased traffic can cause tardy workers who walk in the door with added stress. The key is to plan ahead and effective time management.

Stephanie Davis is owner and president of Let’s Get Organized in Jackson. Her company specializes in offering strategies on how to take the stress out of life, which includes wise use of time. Her advice to commuters dealing with school traffic is, well, get organized. And, like Mickle, she recommends planning well before the commute begins.

“Pack the night before,” Davis says. “You don’t need to be running around in the morning looking for socks or schoolbooks or whatever. Waiting an extra five minutes to leave can cost you 15 minutes in traffic.”

She also advises to establish a routine, which also removes the often hectic, morning rushing around. It keeps both parents’ and children’s stress levels down, and helps get the kids to the schoolyard earlier.

And when the kids get there earlier, she suggests that they use that time wisely, too.

“Have something for the children to do while they are waiting for the bell to ring,” Davis says. “Have them review spelling words or go back over their homework.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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