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Time for kids to get on the bus — the walking kind

To up the safety ante even more, the state encourages adult-led “walking school buses,” such as this one made up of students and parents from Explorer K-8 who took a walk to raise awareness.

DAN DEWITT | Times

To up the safety ante even more, the state encourages adult-led “walking school buses,” such as this one made up of students and parents from Explorer K-8 who took a walk to raise awareness.

Amazingly, after all those hours in front of video games, our kids' legs still work pretty well.

Every other person on the street, it turns out, is not a murderous pervert. Even Hernando County — never a pedestrian's paradise — has a few miles of sidewalks and, at busy intersections, lighted signs to let people know when it's safe to cross.

So our kids can walk to school. They can do it reasonably safely. And while they're at it, they can get exercise and lessons in independence, personal responsibility and traffic flow. Plus, every child on foot takes a car off the road, which eases congestion, makes streets safer for more walkers and cuts down on exhaust fumes.

Maybe we parents who walked to school as children knew this already. But it's even clearer now, two months into the first school year without so-called courtesy busing for children who live less than 2 miles from their schools.

There have been far more students walking throughout the district, but especially at schools in densely populated parts of Spring Hill, such as Explorer K-8.

Last year, 1,400 students there were allowed to ride buses. This year it's down to 600. Obviously, a lot of those 800 or so children who have been liberated from buses — one way to look at it — now arrive in cars. But as many as 500 students walk to and from Explorer every day, said principal John Stratton.

So far, there have been few reports of clashes between cars and pedestrians around the district, said transportation director Linda Smith.

To make these reports even rarer, the Florida Department of Health is organizing "walking school buses" around the county. The idea is this: If children walk in groups, accompanied by at least one adult, they'll be exposed to all the benefits of walking and fewer of the hazards. It's done all the time in congested counties such as Pinellas, said Lucy Gonzales-Barr, the Health Department worker who organized the walking bus I boarded Thursday morning.

It was so well attended — with 59 children and more than a dozen adults — it looked more like a train rolling down the sidewalk along Northcliffe Boulevard.

This was a one-time event that focused more on spreading the word about walking buses than actual muscle-powered transportation. To get to the starting point of the walk, Northcliffe Baptist Church, most parents drove. Many of the children who participated don't regularly walk to school. Some of them, such as 6-year-old Madison Pascale, never will, said her mother, Melissa.

"It's because of what you read about," she said, "the abductions."

Maybe we in the press are guilty of spreading the notion that children are regularly nabbed off the street on their way to school. But it's not true. As I've written before, no child has been kidnapped and either sexually abused or murdered by a stranger in Hernando since I moved here 22 years ago.

It's less likely when the sidewalks are filled with other students walking. It would seem nearly impossible if an adult is around, "driving" a walking bus.

Being hit by a car in Florida, always a lethal place for walkers, is a real danger. Around Explorer, fortunately, sidewalks are plentiful, and the only time we had to step off one was onto a crosswalk on Northcliffe, where we were supervised by a crossing guard. On the last stretch to the school, we joined a reassuringly large stream of regular walkers, and it seemed as safe on that sidewalk as in a school hallway.

The back entrance, off Landover Boulevard, I'm not so sure about. Stratton told me that he's asked for another crossing guard there. It could definitely use one; it's a natural shortcut for children coming from the west.

Because for all the benefits of walking and riding bikes to school, there are potential dangers. Just last week a 14-year-old boy suffered minor injuries after being struck by a car while riding his bike to Springstead High School.

So when I talked to, for example, Travis Norwood, 10, who walks to Explorer every day, hand in hand with his 5-year-old sister, Quintara, I thought: What a kid! What a big brother!

I also thought he would be even better off in the company of a driver — the walking kind.

Time for kids to get on the bus — the walking kind 10/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 22, 2011 1:55pm]

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