By Gary Westphal and Don Williams
Chief of Police and Police Officer, Mesquite Police Department, Mesquite, Texas
Residents of Mesquite like to think of it as a small town. It still has a rodeo parade and town get-togethers. Every square inch of park and church property is used for youth sports on any given Saturday. Towns like this cherish their families and their children.
On Halloween Day 2003, the Foster family sat in front of their home in a quiet Mesquite neighborhood and made plans for that holiday evening. Ten-year-old Kyle Foster was the most excited. His father had brought him a piece of fruit and he ran to his mother to show it to her. Kyle’s father, his brother, and his brother’s friend were also outside in the front yard. Kyle was eager to go across the street to his friend’s house. His mother gave him permission. When Kyle entered the street, a 1997 Ford pickup operated by a 16-year-old girl struck him. Kyle was thrown several feet and landed by the curb across the street. His family watched in horror. Kyle was rushed to the hospital. The next day, he died of his injuries. A community was in mourning.
Kyle Foster was involved in youth sports. His mother was an employee of the Mesquite Independent School District. Hundreds of people knew Kyle and his family and they attended Kyle’s funeral. There were so many people that it was already dark by the time the family reached the cemetery to lay him to rest. It was a tribute to a vibrant and active boy.
The Fosters had to go home and see the crash scene everyday. The 16-year-old driver of the pickup lived just a few houses down the street from the Fosters. This made the tragedy even worse. There was one thing that everyone did have in common: everyone wanted to do whatever they could to prevent this from happening again. Everyone knew that it would be a major undertaking. Everyone knew that it would take a long time. In the end it would take almost two years to complete. The final phase of the initiative was taken on by the Mesquite Police Department to educate children about pedestrian safety.
fter the death of Kyle Foster, people concerned about pedestrian safety held meetings in Mesquite. Many were involved: the city council, the mayor, a neighbor of Kyle’s who was an officer in the local Parent Teacher Association (PTA). The meetings established five goals:
• Begin a campaign to slow traffic
• Educate adult community and drivers
• Evaluate city traffic ordinances
• Involve the local traffic engineer
• Teach children about pedestrian safety
In today’s complex policing world and the fast pace of modern life, the topic of pedestrian safety seems pretty basic. But many police departments, schools, and parents have become complacent about educating children about pedestrian safety. When the Mesquite Police Department met with school officials to determine what was already in place regarding pedestrian safety, they discovered that there was no program in place to teach pedestrian safety. The PTA had not addressed pedestrian safety, and the most current video the police department had on pedestrian safety dated to the 1970s. The crime prevention unit had not been asked in years to do a pedestrian safety presentation. The closest related safety presentation was the bicycle safety program. It quickly became apparent that this basic subject matter was not being addressed in an organized way. Two other issues quickly surfaced: the laws regulating residential streets, and education for motorists about pedestrian safety.
Residential Speed Limit
The first consideration was the residential speed limit. In Mesquite the residential speed limit was 30 miles per hour. The first goal of the city was to lower the residential speed limit to 25, and it launched the Drive 25 campaign to slow traffic in residential areas. Immediately yard signs began to emerge throughout Mesquite: Keep Kids Alive—Drive 25. The PTA advertised the slower speed limit at meetings in Mesquite.
To reach the goal of slowing traffic, the city needed to change the residential speed limit. The existing state law established the prima facie urban speed limit at 30 miles per hour and that speed could only be changed after an engineering and traffic study was conducted according to Texas Department of Transportation guidelines. Such a study was required for each street that would have the speed limit changed. On May 3, 2004, the city council authorized the traffic engineer to conduct a study on 92 randomly selected residential streets in Mesquite; the study was completed March 2005. Under Texas Department of Transportation guidelines, none of the surveyed streets were eligible for the speed reduction.
Early data from the traffic study made it evident that the study would not obtain the desired results that the pedestrian initiative sought. Relief was sought through Mesquite’s state representatives at the state capitol to change the state law. Legislation was introduced to allow cities to lower residential speed limits to 25 if the current speed limit was determined by the city’s governing body as unreasonable or unsafe. Only six persons testified before the state on the bill and all six were from Mesquite. On May 27, 2005, the legislation became law. On September 19, 2005, the Mesquite City Council approved $83,600 to implement the 25-mile-per-hour speed limit and install 800 new speed limit signs throughout the city.
Educating the Driver
Posting a sign in a neighborhood is not enough for compliance. Many residents and visitors would not even know the speed limit had been lowered. The Mesquite Police Department undertook the educational effort with two purposes: inform citizens of the lower speed and talk about the importance of pedestrian safety. The local paper, Mesquite News, published a comprehensive article on the new state law enabling the city to pass an ordinance lowering the residential speed limit to 25 miles per hour. The information was also placed on the police department and the city Web sites, as well as published in the city’s community publication, known as Mainstream.
Engaging community leaders, the PTA, and government officials, the city’s education of the public was under way. Through appearances at local organizations such as the Rotary and Exchange clubs, community officials discussed the speed limit change. The Mesquite Police Department held a press conference and public meetings to discuss the new law. The police department also asked for citizen comments on the law change; police learned that most respondents were in favor of the lower speed limit.
Educating the Child
The Mesquite Police Department, with the assistance of school officials and the Mesquite Independent School District, undertook the task of developing the pedestrian educational program. The educational media would be a video.
The police department’s crime prevention unit worked with the traffic department and planned the different scenarios to be included in the video. Taking their cues from other educational videos for children, team members developed a video that would use age-appropriate language and images to teach children to cross the street safely. The video, called “The Other Side,” presented different scenarios that a child pedestrian might encounter. The chief of police approved the script.
The team selected actors, set a filming date, and oversaw production. The police department’s crime prevention unit helped the school district’s instructional television department edit the video and release the final version in May 2005.
The school district played the video on its classroom television system every 30 minutes for one week and required teachers to show it at least once during that week. Nearly every one of the Mesquite school district’s 19,145 elementary school students watched the video in class.
To determine the viewing interest in the video, the police department surveyed 50 randomly selected students in the elementary schools:
• 48 said they saw the video.
• 48 remembered the instructions: stop, look left, look right, look left again.
• 39 reported that they had a classroom discussion about the video’s message.
• 44 said they told their parents about the video.
• 40 said they have told someone else how to cross the street.
• 48 said they practiced the techniques taught by the video.
These results confirmed for police officials that the message of the child pedestrian safety video was reaching the target audience.
Police made copies of the video available to the public. The crime prevention unit scheduled several appointments with home school groups and day care centers to show the video. The video was also distributed to all PTA chapters and has been shown at numerous crime watch meetings. The school district has committed to showing the video twice a year to all of the elementary school students in the future.
Since the implementation of this lower speed limit and the “The Other Side” video, Mesquite has had no residential pedestrian fatalities. Police officials believe that the lower speed limit, along with the education of drivers and children, helped eliminate the residential collisions.
When this initiative began, there was no program in place to address pedestrian safety. Children who have never been told about this important safety message are now hearing it regularly and their parents are aware of the risk.
The Next Generation
Since the video production of “The Other Side,” the Mesquite Police Department has acquired its own filming and editing equipment. The department is already in the process of updating the elementary school age video and will produce it in Spanish and English. The department is also working on an accompanying video with a focus on teenage drivers.
The Mesquite Police Department is making copies of the video and script available to other departments upon request. The updated version is using a generic police vehicle and police uniform that is not identifiable to Mesquite. This will enable other departments to insert their own officer for the introduction segment and present it as video specific to their community.
This project has reminded many in Mesquite that we tend to drift away or ignore the obvious and basic. Once it was discovered that there were no true pedestrian safety programs in place, everyone remembered Kyle Foster and knew something had to be done.
This initiative pulled together every aspect of our community from the mayor, city council, police department, fire department, school board, school officials, community members, elected state representative, governor, and students to make kids safer. Saving a child’s life made the two year journey worth every day and every hour.