A dozen people struck in Charlotte school zones every year

A WBTV Investigation reveals safety concerns in school zones and a possible solution.
A WBTV Investigation reveals safety concerns in school zones and a possible solution.
Updated: Aug. 24, 2023 at 5:00 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A WBTV Investigation into traffic safety near schools reveals a dozen pedestrians are struck by cars in school zones every year in Charlotte. The data reviewed by WBTV raises more questions about the policies and plans to protect students at Charlotte schools.

Students, parents and teachers at Garinger High School know about the cost of dangerous school zones more than anyone.

The crosswalks at the intersection of East Sugar Creek and Eastway Drive was built on one woman’s suffering a decade ago.

“I’m very thankful that even now after all these years people still care about Brittany,” Katrina Palmer-Tobias told WBTV.

Palmer-Tobias lost her daughter Brittany in 2012. She was hit by a car while crossing the street in front of Garinger.

“You send your child to school and you expect them to come back home in the afternoon,” Palmer-Tobias said.

The street looked vastly different then. The changes to the road and addition of the crosswalks came only after an outcry following Brittany’s death.

“Nobody needs to go through what I went through and countless other parents have gone through,” Palmer-Tobias said.

But more families have felt her pain, including at Garinger.

In 2019, student Israel Plyler was killed at the intersection, prompting students and teachers to call for more safety in school zones.

WBTV requested data from the City of Charlotte to find out just how safe, or dangerous, school zones are. Since July 2020, there have been more than 2,500 crashes in or near school zones. That includes 95 crashes near Garinger and another fatal pedestrian collision in front of the school in 2021.

On average, 12 pedestrians are struck in school zones every year in Charlotte. Six pedestrians have been killed in school zones since July 2020.

Since all of the improvements made since Brittany’s death aren’t enough to keep students safe, WBTV started digging to identify the problem and search for solutions.

Mickey Cornelius works for The Traffic Group and says speed is the most critical factor making school zones dangerous.

It’s amazing when you’re driving 30 mph you don’t think you’re going fast, and yet you hit a pedestrian, it’s almost a 50% chance that they could have serious injury or fatality,” Cornelius said.

“It’s not just having the posted speed limit, it’s having the drivers obey the speed limit.”

That’s what traffic signs, flashing lights and beacons are for. But WBTV drove through more than half a dozen school zones across Charlotte and found the number of signs, and their visibility, inconsistent. Sometimes the signs are covered by trees or are installed above a driver’s line of sight.

Cornelius said that radar speed signs or driver feedback signs are one of the most effective and cost efficient ways to reduce speed.

One of the biggest factors or one of the biggest improvements you can make is, it’s a very cost effective solution, is to actually put the signs up that have the radar speeds.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reviewed multiple studies on radar speed signs in school zones and found the vast majority led to a significant decrease in speed.

But there are only five of them installed in Charlotte school zones.

A spokesperson for Charlotte’s Vision Zero campaign said the signs are installed at Providence High School, Charlotte Country Day, Mallard Creek Elementary School, Newell Elementary School, and Smith Academy. Two out of three of those schools are private, not public.

Charlotte’s school zone application toolkit makes no mention of radar speed signs. Instead a spokesperson for the city said the Charlotte Department of Transportation evaluates schools without “flashers” and 4-5 schools get added to a list to have those installed, if there’s room in the budget.

“A maintenance list was created to update every school with new reflective green signs and refresh or install new school pavement markings. This is a continuous effort to install flashers and update old signs and pavement markings to make motorist more aware of the school zones,” the spokesperson wrote.

Cornelius said the data supports radar speed signs as the most effective tool at slowing speeders.

“You can actually get speed reductions of up to 10 mph on travel speeds when you have these radar signs,” Cornelius said.

That can be the difference between life and death.