On the right track

14th February 1997 at 00:00
Walking to school may be a bit of a chore for most children but if you are following the bright yellow footprints of Trax the dinosaur, it's a different story. His trails now lead the way to schools all over Luton and are part of the borough council's Safety Around Schools Project, designed to persuade children and parents that walking to school can be a pleasant, healthy and safe way of getting there.

Luton has a good record of innovative safety ideas and Safety Around Schools draws much of its inspiration from an earlier award-winning project centred on the town's Marsh Farm Estate.

Back in 1994, Marsh Farm had the worst record for road accidents in Bedfordshire and accounted for four out of every five Luton children admitted to hospital as a result of accidents.

It was decided to use a multi-agency approach to tackle this problem, and vulnerable families were provided with stair gates, fire guards, smoke alarms and window locks to improve safety in the home. First Aid courses for parents were arranged by health visitors and the engineers introduced a series of traffic calming measures for roads.

The road safety officers devised education and training programmes concentrating on child pedestrian safety and speed limits for motorists. The health authority provided families of three-year-olds with a Children's Traffic Club book and people were encouraged to write and produce materials for the campaign. One designed the campaign's logo - a school sign, with the slogan "Look out for Marsh'uns".

The ensuing success of the Marsh Farm project inspired the council to do more safety work, but this time to concentrate on schools.

Project manager Tony Potter, the principal engineer for Luton, explains that "The council's aim was to reduce child accidents in the whole area of the school and we were particularly keen to encourage children to walk to school rather than travel by car."

Naturally there was a problem of which schools to choose. Jon Judah, the chief of engineering services for Luton, says "For our first group of eight schools we chose ones with particular problems. Our aim was to reduce congestion and disruption around schools by a process of education. We felt that we must encourage a move from cars to other forms of transport, which would mean a complete change in attitude. Every effort must be made to slow traffic down so that local routes are given back to their communities and not simply used as rat runs."

Such projects cost money, between #163;20,000 and #163;25, 000 per school according to Tony Potter. The bulk of this was spent on road improvements, but about 10 per cent was passed to the Road Safety Department for training and publicity.

Kate Pordage, former science teacher and leader of the Luton Road Safety team has been delighted at the success of the project so far. She is a passionate believer in working with parents and children to develop safe pedestrian skills as they walk to school together.

"It is wonderful to feel that you are making a contributio n to children's safety," she says. "We start off by meeting the staff, telling them what they can expect from us and we expect from them. Then we talk to the children to get their ideas. "It came as quite a shock to realise how much the children worried about their journey to school. Even the youngest children had clear ideas of ways that their journey could be made safer."

After a further meeting to get the views of the parents, a package is produced for each school.

This includes a traffic trail to highlight safe routes and safe areas, as well as individual resource packs comprising A4 photographs of the local environment, together with ideas of how these might be used. Suggestions for cross-curricular activities and links with appropriate national curriculum attainment targets complete the pack.

About #163;20,000 is spent on engineering work. This will always include yellow zig-zag "No Parking" lines on the road outside and a promise of police enforcement.

Further road work could include new or altered signing, making crossing points safer, and changing the colour of the road to make motorists more aware of danger spots. Finally the dinosaur footprints appear to mark the safe pedestrian routes.

Jon Judah is thrilled at the progress of the project. "We are anxious to work with our colleagues in Road Safety and in schools to see that safety has its rightful place in the curriculum. The pilot programme has shown us that this is something that the community really wants."

Janet Hathaway, head of one of the pilot schools, Beech Hill community junior school agrees. "I was a little sceptical at first," she admits "But that soon changed when I saw the care that was being taken to deal with our problems. The children of course love it."

So far only a small number of Luton's 70 schools have taken part in the project, so what of the future?

"Our hope is to have a rolling programme that will allow 15 schools to take part next year, and 20 the year after, until eventually we have covered them all," says Jon Judah. By then Luton will doubtless have been completely taken over by bright yellow dinosaur footprints.

Kate Pordage, Bedfordshire County Council, Bedfordshire House, 111 Stuart Street, Luton LU1 5NP. Tel: 01582 409680

Tony Potter, Engineering Division, Town Hall, Luton LU1 2BQ. Tel: 01582 746962

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