Now that Hamilton County schools are back in session, local law enforcement agencies want to stress to drivers it's time to engage the brakes in the school zones they've been ignoring all summer.
Chattanooga police officers stood beside Hamilton County sheriff's deputies and state troopers during a news conference in front of Central High School on Highway 58 on Thursday afternoon to remind drivers to be mindful of students going to and from school.
"We want to make sure everyone knows to be aware of the increased dangers that exist with distracted driving, speeding and failure to exercise due care in school zones with reduced speeds and children present," said Lt. Austin Garrett with the Chattanooga Police Department.
"Not only are children present, but so are parents and school patrol officers who are charged with patrolling for the safety of our children."
Unsafe driving in school zones can have deadly consequences, as Garrett reminded the public Thursday.
"In 1975 and 1991, the Chattanooga Police Department experienced the deaths of school patrol officers killed while working traffic enforcement within school zones," he said. "Pay attention. Don't do something careless that could cost another person their life."
While the pedestrian death rate for those 19 and under has decreased over the last 20 years, according to Safe Kids Worldwide, 284 kids from the ages of 12-19 were killed while walking in 2015 — a rate of five a week. Safe Kids is a nonprofit organization that works to protect kids from preventable injuries from drownings, fires, poisonings, car crashes and more.
Researchers with Safe Kids also found that among 18,194 teens observed during a study, distracted walking was on the rise. More than 25 percent of students in 34 participating high schools were distracted in school zones by wearing headphones, texting or something else.
Garrett said drivers have spent the summer growing accustomed to ignoring posted signage about school zones, but it's time to change that mindset.
"It's one of the main reasons we're here today — drivers adapt to certain behaviors during the summer break," he said. "They don't drive through school zones that are active, so all of a sudden the school zones are active again today. We want to change the driver behaviors back to being conditioned that they're in a school zone."
Starting Jan. 1, 2018, a new state law will go into effect banning any and all uses of cellphones by drivers in school zones. Talking on the phone while driving in an active school zone will be a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $50.
Amy Katcher, spokeswoman for the Hamilton County Department of Education, said she and administrators support the efforts of law enforcement agencies to remind the public of their responsibilities while driving.
"We encourage motorists to slow down in school zones and be on the lookout for students. We appreciate that our friends in law enforcement are helping make sure drivers get back into the school zone safety habit," she wrote in an email.
While the Chattanooga Police Department focuses on school zones within the city limits, other agencies face unique challenges in different areas. Tennessee Highway Patrol Lt. John Harmon said drivers in rural areas have to remember students will be waiting on the side of the road now to be picked up by a bus.
"We need to be watching, especially watching for the children at the bus stops," he said. "Those children may be waiting on that bus in the dark."
He also pointed out that the standards for school zones aren't necessarily uniform throughout the county.
"Here today, the school zone is 30 mph when the lights are flashing on Highway 58, but you go to a school zone on the other end of the county and it could be 15 mph. So the school zones vary depending on the road and depending on the terrain," he said.
Following the conference, Chattanooga Police released a list of commonsense tips for drivers to follow the speed limit, stay alert and, if you want to make it to work on time, allow more time for travel at the start of the school year.
"Allow yourself more time to get where you are going until you can figure out the effects of increased traffic and reduced speeds through school zones," the release read.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.