Nearly a dozen Benito Middle School parents and teacher lined the roads that run by their children’s school last week with bright yellow signs blaring simple messages:
Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.
Teaming up with Vision Zero Hillsborough, the Benito parents hoped to shine a light on a growing problem in this congested section of New Tampa. About a month into the new school year, parents are saying the conditions in which their kids walk and bike to school are becoming more and more dangerous.
With the school situated on the south side of busy Cross Creek Blvd., the tail end of the morning commute is made more difficult by hundreds of students walking and biking — with many of them having to cross the busy street — to get to Benito.
While flashing lights are present along Cross Creek, notifying drivers that the speed limit is 20 miles per hour during the times students are walking to school, drivers leaving Kinnan St. and turning east or west onto Cross Creek don’t see those signs.
The intersection is congested with those heading to work and parents trying to get into the car line to drop their children off at school. Because there are cars entering the Benito parking lot from both directions on Cross Creek, the entrance can get backed up, leaving drivers trying to cross over from Kinnan St. to have to wait an extra light cycle, sometimes two.
That can lead to bad decisions by drivers who are in a hurry, while also creating backups in both directions along Cross Creek Blvd.
Ironically, about an hour before parents and Vision Zero Hillsborough showed up with their signs, as if to highlight the dangers of Kinnan and Cross Creek, an accident in the middle of the intersection backed up morning traffic and sent debris like broken glass flying into the crosswalk. Fortunately, it happened before schooltime pedestrian traffic.
The most sometimes-heart-stopping concern, Benito principal John Sanders says, results from drivers leaving Kinnan Street and making a left onto Cross Creek heading east.
“Kids are in that crosswalk while cars are turning,” says Sanders. “The cars go right in front of them or right behind them — by feet and sometimes inches.”
The problem is that when the crosswalk light is green, giving the pedestrians the right of way to cross the street, drivers making a left onto Cross Creek also have the same green light. Legally, they have to yield to the pedestrians in the crosswalk, but it appears many drivers are acting as if they have a green arrow instead, and don’t notice or aren’t checking to make sure that there aren’t pedestrians in (or entering) the crosswalk.
“It’s not a safe crosswalk for students because of so much traffic coming from so many different directions, and people aren’t paying attention,” says Jenny Giraldo, whose daughter attends Benito. “Signage is lacking on so many levels, drivers aren’t really made aware. They need to be woken up.”
Sanders adds that he is hopeful that changes will be made.
On Friday, September 7(the day this issue hits mailboxes), a meeting is scheduled with representatives from the City of Tampa and the Hillsborough County School Board to discuss possible changes to lights and signs in the area.
“I think that the light situation needs to change,” says Benito Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) president Cindy Walton. “There needs to be no turn on red or the light for walking needs to be longer, while other lights aren’t green. It causes children to walk at the same time cars want to go, and cars don’t yield to pedestrians the way they should.”
To address the cars not yielding to pedestrians — or not being aware of the situation — the PTSA invited Vision Zero Hillsborough to hold the rally along Cross Creek Blvd. during the morning drop-off time on Aug. 31.
The Vision Zero Action Plan was developed by the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Policy Committee, and has organized similar efforts at other dangerous areas in Tampa, most recently Seminole Heights.
“Vision Zero is an organization that is trying to eliminate traffic deaths,” Walton explains. “The event is to raise awareness that there are children, and drivers need to obey traffic laws, yield to pedestrians and slow down.”
While the school administrators and PTSA are working to educate parents and students at the school, Walton says Vision Zero was brought in to bring awareness to those drivers who are not part of the school.
“We knew we needed to reach out to the (entire) community, versus just our parents,” says Walton. “We need to have that awareness within our own community that students are walking along Cross Creek Blvd. and drivers need to watch out.”
Sanders agrees that the issue needs to be addressed in multiple ways.
“Part of it is educating the children who are walking to do everything in their power and control to keep themselves safe at that intersection,” he says. “Some of them are crossing in the crosswalk, assuming that they’re safe, and they’re not.”
To drivers — both those parents in the car line and those who are just trying to get to work through the mess of traffic, Sanders makes this plea: “Please exercise patience,” he says. “Especially from about 8:30 to 9:30 a.m., exercise extreme caution in the area. Please, if you’re turning left onto Cross Creek from Kinnan, be aware that green light happens while kids are in the crosswalk.”
No Major Incidents…Yet
According to the City of Tampa Police Department (TPD), since school started on Aug. 10, there has been just one minor accident between a student and a driver, which happened the morning of Aug. 16.
An eastbound vehicle turning right into Benito off of Cross Creek didn’t stop for a red light and struck a bicycle with the front bumper of the car. Fortunately, the student was able to attend school that day.
Eddy Durkin, a spokesperson for the TPD, says officers initiated 17 traffic stops —including 15 during school hours — at either the intersection of Cross Creek and Kinnan or directly in front of Benito that week.
“We are hopeful that the balance of education and enforcement being provided regarding vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian safety will assist drivers, riders and walkers in making good decisions,” he says.
Parents are concerned that the next accident might not be so minor.
Giraldo says she recently saw a terrifying incident at that intersection.
A student crossing Cross Creek Blvd. in the crosswalk with a green “walk” signal had no idea that a large pickup truck was making a left-hand turn from Kinnan onto Cross Creek. The vehicle didn’t yield to the student in the crosswalk, and the student didn’t see the truck, as it was coming from behind her.
Giraldo says she was sitting in her car at the intersection and that she saw a woman who happened to be in the intersection grab the child by her backpack and yank her out of the path of the oncoming truck.
“It happened in a split second,” she says, “and it’s horrifying to think what would have happened if that woman hadn’t been standing there.”
Walton and other parents are hopeful that drivers will change their bad habits to make getting to school safer for students.
“Walking is good for them, riding their bike is exercise, and it’s good for them to be outside,” says Walton. “If traffic was aware and slowed down, and if traffic yielded to them, it would absolutely be safe for them to ride to school.”