By: Emilie Eastman
The groups of children traipsing through many Maryland neighborhoods Wednesday morning were not practicing for Halloween.
October 9 was International Walk to School Day and hundreds of students from at least 69 Maryland schools participated in the annual event by walking, biking or scootering to school.
“It’s just an adventure, [the children] look forward to it every year,” said Arnold mom Elizabeth Stover.
Each October, thousands of schools from more than 40 countries participate in International Walk to School Day. The event was first held in Chicago in 1997 as an awareness campaign sponsored by the Partnership for a Walkable America. Today, many schools celebrate the day as part of year-long initiatives to promote safer streets and walking or biking to school.
It’s good for the environment and good for the children, said Tammy Perunovich, assistant principal at Belvedere Elementary School in Arnold.
Belvedere commemorated the day with a surprise appearance by Louie, the Bowie Baysox mascot, and a visit from County Police Cpl. Dave Bellis who spoke to students about walking and biking safety. The school also handed out punch cards that students will be able to fill up by walking to school and eventually submit for a raffle prize, Perunovich said.
“It’s a very popular event and I hope to keep the tradition alive,” she said.
Jen and Dan Scanlon walked to Belvedere with their four children on Wednesday, and said they like to make a habit of walking there, even in the winter.
“It’s absolutely healthy for the kids,” Jen Scanlon said. “If they’re grumpy in the morning, their mood changes by the time they walk here. Even our moods change.”
Severna Park Elementary School saw one of its biggest turnouts yet, with nearly half of the student population choosing to walk on Wednesday, said organizer Nicole Jeffers. The school rewarded walkers with hot beverages and crepes from local businesses, which disappeared quickly once parents and students began arriving, said organizer Steve Strohecker.
“We’ll know for next year that we’ve got to double up on some stuff,” he said
Jen Foreman and her three children said they had fun walking to Severna Park Elementary, although the trip took them nearly 30 minutes.
“A little bit of downtime is nice,” Foreman said. “They just really wanted to do it.”
But while national participation in Walk to School Day has steadily increased since its inception, only about 14 percent of American children regularly walk to school, according to a recent Center for Disease Control survey. The most popular form of transportation is the family car, followed by the school bus, the survey found.
The majority of survey respondents said distance was the main barrier to walking and 9 percent cited traffic danger as the biggest deterrent.
Maryland has the 9th highest rate of pedestrian deaths per capita, according to the latest data from the CDC. And while overall traffic fatalities have recently decreased in the state, pedestrian fatalities remain about the same, said Lora Rakowski, a Maryland State Highway Administration spokeswoman.
In Bethesda on Wednesday, parents and community members from the Action Committee for Transit handed out leaflets to raise awareness about pedestrian safety around schools. Some held signs that said “Drive as if your kid walked here,” said Wendy Leibowitz, a committee member and Bethesda Elementary School parent.
There have been several car accidents involving pedestrians around the school over the last few years, and in February, a woman and child were hit in a crosswalk near the school, according to a transit committee press release.
Leibowitz said she walks her 8-year-old daughter to school every day, but that only about 10 families regularly join her. She said she did not notice an increase of walkers in Bethesda for International Walk to School Day.
“The sad thing is there aren’t a lot of people walking to Bethesda Elementary School because a lot of parents are scared,” Leibowitz said. “It’s too dangerous – it’s like ‘Let’s all take a roller coaster to school!’”