Suzanne Perez Tobias

What’s the most dangerous place at any high school? The parking lot

It’s good to know that Kansas law enforcement agencies will patrol area schools over the next couple weeks, checking for seat belt usage among teenagers.

They should also be on the lookout for reckless driving, distracted driving, speeding, road rage and any number of hazards on display every day in school parking lots. Chances are they’d find plenty.

Having raised two children and covered education in and around Wichita for more than a decade, I have spent significant amounts of time at area schools. That’s why I believe the most dangerous place at any high school just might be the parking lot after class is dismissed.

For about 20 minutes every weekday, school parking lots teem with inexperienced drivers — many of them checking their phones, blasting their stereos, goofing off with friends and rushing to get home or to after-school jobs.

Combine that with lots of pedestrians, a congested carpool lane, lines of school buses, and frustrated motorists trying to navigate through the mess, and it’s a prime scenario for accidents and near-accidents.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some of top reasons: driver inexperience, driving with teen passengers, distracted driving, drowsy driving, reckless driving and impaired driving.

Most schools have a hard time patrolling parking lots or monitoring traffic — if they try at all — so the result is an afternoon free-for-all that can test the nerves of even experienced drivers.

It doesn’t help that Wichita schools eliminated driver’s ed — a cost-cutting move in 2010 that resulted in parents either teaching their teenagers themselves or sending them to commercial driving schools. Teens whose families can’t or don’t want to pay for private lessons often hit the road with far less experience than necessary.

What’s the answer? Short of a windfall that could fund driver’s ed for every teenager, it’s up to parents and other adults to teach young drivers safety precautions for school parking lots. For example:

  • If possible, park farther away from the school, in a less congested area. That could mean a longer walk into school in the morning, but it also reduces the chances of an accident when you’re heading out at day’s end.
  • Take your time getting out. Waiting just five or 10 minutes before leaving the lot will allow you to avoid the bulk of the traffic congestion.
  • Limit distractions. Make a rule for every driver in the family — Mom and Dad included — that you’ll put away cell phones, turn the music way down and limit conversations with passengers while navigating school parking lots.
  • Look in all directions for pedestrians, bicycles and other vehicles.
  • Know the established traffic patterns of your school’s parking lot, and drive in the direction designated for each lane. If you go the wrong way, drivers backing up may not see you because they might not look in that direction.
  • Be courteous. Go slow. Take turns letting other drivers move ahead of you, and allow plenty of space for others to back out of parking spaces.

As with most life skills, teens won’t know this stuff instinctively. They must be taught, and that requires specific instructions for your young driver and plenty of practice navigating parking lots at school and elsewhere.

Complaining won’t make a difference, but a conversation might. Start today.

Suzanne Perez Tobias is a columnist and member of The Eagle’s editorial board. During her nearly 30 years at the newspaper, she has covered breaking news, education, local government and other topics. An avid reader, Suzanne also oversees The Eagle’s books coverage and coordinates the annual #ReadICT Challenge. She can be reached at 316-268-6567.