Safety City

By Wayne Townsend

A program called Safety City teaches children how to navigate New York City streets safely. Located in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx, the enclosed facility has a full-scale city block with working traffic devices, pedestrian signage, and pavement markings. Program staff instruct third graders, usually 7 or 8, on how to navigate the dangers of crossing of streets, how to steer clear of the hazards on their bicycles, and the proper way to wear protective gear.

Safety City uses classroom and a realistic outdoor environment to teach kids that it is ultimately up to them to ensure their own safety when it come traffic. It also helps teach them that drivers may not always follow rules regarding  pedestrians. The program is designed to establish, or in some cases reinforce, kids’ ability to make smart decisions when they are out and about in the city streets. During the four-hour session, instructors review personal safety tools for pedestrians. They emphasize the importance of being visible to drivers and encourage them to take responsibility for their own safety.

As effective as the program is, it has suffered budget cuts and only one location remains in Throg’s Neck. This has not deterred Gina Maas, the manager of the site. Maas has been involved with the program for most of her 20 years as a civil servant. She has run the Bronx location for the last eight years and has redoubled her effort to ensure she can educate as many third graders as possible.

Maas researches traffic patterns throughout the city and reaches out to the principals of schools where she has discovered a spike in pedestrian injuries. “I call the schools, parent coordinators, whomever I can get a hold of,” said Maas. “I even reach out to colleagues in the DOT (New York City Department of Transportation). The response is usually the same, they don’t know about it, but dive right in as soon as I spin them up.” Most of the participants are from Manhattan and the Bronx. “We had a school from Queens come two years ago,” Maas said, “but that’s few and far between.”

Gisella Vivanco, 39, and Evelyn Ortiz, 42, teachers from P.S. 159 in the Bronx, brought their students to Safety City for the third year in a row. “The children learn so much here,” Vivanco said. “They become so much more aware of drivers that violate traffic rules and the signs.” Ortiz has noticed her students have also taken on the responsibility of educating their parents. “We notice how embarrassed the students are when they drive up to school and they aren’t in the back seat,” Ortiz said. “They often apologize to us when they get out of the car. Some ask us to speak to their parents and explain to them it’s the law that they ride in the back seat. We see our kids insist their parents walk to the crosswalk and cross the street at the corner. I love it.”

Sklya, 8, said she had learned “to always stop, look, and listen, no matter what and to cross at the corners and use the lights.” Her classmate, Yardin, 8, added, that they were learning to use two fingers to measure from the eyebrow to the bottom of the helmet to make sure it’s on right.

The outdoor portion of the training required the children to recognize pavement markings, crosswalks, and traffic lights. There were simulated vehicles, and the students were asked to perform the skills they learned in the classroom. It was surprising to see just how much the children did not know. It took some of them three tries to exhibit all the required understanding to move on to the next station. The most notable gap was their inability to make eye contact with would-be drivers at intersections. However, once the instruction was reinforced, no student continued to display the bad habits.

Maas has an entire wall dedicated to the mail she receives from the participants of the program. When asked what she enjoyed the most, Maas said, “It’s reading all of feedback we get from the educators.” With the budgetary axe ever present, Maas does everything in her power to coordinate the trips with the NYC Dept of Education, keeping the cost to the schools to a minimum. “I love what I do,” Maas said. “As a grandmother, I want every child to be safe and still be able to enjoy a day riding their bikes.”

If you are interested in scheduling a field trip, or want further information regarding Safety City, please click on the link below:


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