The recent kindergarten graduate was portraying a police officer in a bit of public safety theater. He and a group of his classmates recently helped the Village of Homewood and Homewood School District 153 produce a public safety video on school bus safety.
The video by local documentary filmmaker Anne Colton is still in production but is expected to be finished sometime this month.
In it, recent Willow School kindergarten graduates use their cardboard box cars in a skit that illustrates many of the unsafe behaviors drivers often engage in near schools and school buses.
Cuteness as a force for good
Homewood Police Chief Bill Alcott plays himself in the video, although he downplayed his acting ability and insisted the kids were the real stars.
Alcott said the project began as village officials were considering a new public safety announcement.
“We always try to put out safety tips throughout the year,” he said. “We have a lot of complaints about people driving around school buses. We were just going to do a basic public safety announcement. Then Allisa came up with (information on) this kindergarten car.”
Allisa Opyd is Homewood’s events manager. She said the idea occurred to her when she recalled how adorable the kindergarten box car project is and how much it means to parents.
The box cars are created by kindergarten students each year, a long-running Willow tradition. The project is part of a unit on transportation, according to Willow Principal Melissa Lawson.
At the end of the unit, which falls at the end of the school year, the students get to drive their box cars to an at-school drive-in movie. The parade of cars through the halls and playground draws a crowd of parents with cameras to capture the magic moment.
Opyd said she still has fond memories of her daughter’s participation in the box car parade.
“I kept Grace’s car until she was in the fourth grade,” she said. “I just couldn’t get rid of it. I’ve heard from other parents. They still have their kids’ car. They have pictures.”
She said she thought the love for and attention to the box car parade might make it an effective way to convey an important safety message.
‘If we can save one ...’
Last fall, in one three-day period, five children were killed and seven people were injured in accidents near school buses in three states, according to a CNN story.
The convergence of those tragedies brought attention to the issue of student safety near school buses, but the cluster of accidents was actually a rare occurrence.
School bus-related accidents represent a very small percentage of all fatal accidents in the country.
In the decade ending in 2016, there were 320,874 fatal traffic crashes in the country. Of those, 1,147, or 0.4 percent, involved school buses. Of the 1,282 people who died in those crashes, 98 were children who were walking near a bus.
The numbers are not the compelling reason for the project, however.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “The greatest risk to your child is not riding a bus, but approaching or leaving one.”
Alcott said Homewood has not had any accidents involving children near buses in recent years.
The purpose of the video is to keep it that way.
“if this public safety announcement can save one life, then we did the right thing,” he said.
In the video, the Willow students in their box cars imitate the behaviors school staff and police officers routinely observe in drivers.
Most people don’t engage in risky driving on purpose, Alcott said. In many cases they have forgotten specific rules or are just in a hurry.
“When you’re 40 and 50 years old you forget some things, such as do you go past a school bus in the opposite direction on a four lane highway? Is it just in the same direction?” he said.
The schools distribute safety reminders to parents every year, Lawson said, but behaviors she and her staff observe near the school suggest that many parents do not heed the advice.
“We’re out in the morning when the parents pull up,” she said. “The kids are in the front seat. By law they shouldn’t be there. They’re not in seat belts.”
Forgetting the rules is one problem, but the most serious problem is forgetting one rule: Don’t drive distracted.
During the recording of the video, the youngsters were given the task of imitating risky driving behaviors, Lawson said. Some of them were drinking coffee. One girl was putting her makeup on. Some were on phones.
Distraction can be deadly. Opyd pointed out that in one of the accidents last fall, an Indiana woman did not notice the school bus, with its arm extended, stop sign out and lights on. She hit four children. One 9-year-old girl died trying to protect her twin brothers from the oncoming truck.
Alcott said buses are designed to demand attention.
“It’s the biggest yellow thing on the street. It has the largest lights. If the arm comes out, the lights come on automatically,” he said.
It’s up to drivers to notice.
The Illinois State Board of Education publishes a guide to school bus safety for motorists. It includes these reminders:
- When a school bus is traveling on a two-lane roadway and is stopped to pick up or drop off pupils, the vehicles in all lanes of traffic must stop.
- When a school bus is traveling on a four-lane roadway with at least two lanes of traffic traveling in the opposite direction, only those lanes of traffic traveling in the same direction as the school bus must stop.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration publishes additional suggestions: Watch for children playing and congregating near bus stops.
- Be alert. Children arriving late for the bus may dart into the street without looking for traffic.
- Yellow flashing lights indicate the bus is preparing to stop to load or unload children. Motorists should slow down and prepare to stop their vehicles.
- Red flashing lights and extended stop arms indicate the bus has stopped and children are getting on or off. Motorists must stop their cars and wait until the red lights stop flashing, the extended stop-arm is withdrawn, and the bus begins moving before they can start driving again.
Getting the word out
The village and the Homewood school district are hoping the video will succeed in getting attention, too. The student actors are key to reaching that goal.
“What better way to tell parents to slow down than to see young kids in cars acting as parents, as opposed to me just talking or writing an article,” Alcott said.
ISBE reports that most children who are killed near school buses are 5 to 7 years old, so the kids in the video are in the age group most at risk.
Opyd said the village and district plan to unveil the video at a school board meeting and possibly at a village board meeting. It will also be posted on the village’s social media channels. Ideally, other communities will discover the video and show it to parents and other residents.
“Hopefully it will go viral. We believe that using the kids in the video will make it resonate even more and hopefully that will help cast a wider net to reach everyone,” Opyd said.