Gridlock Guy: Back to school commute not straightforward in 2020

The back-to-school season is usually well defined. In a period of two or three weeks, most Metro Atlanta students rouse from the summer slumber and enter the early morning routine. Schools ring in mixtures of minivans, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians in a common ingress and egress like clockwork.

But 2020, or more accurately the COVID-19 pandemic, has shredded calendars and pulverised alarms. Another understood, timebound tradition is disrupted, but certainly hasn’t been called off. Back-to-school season is now far less defined, which could make these commutes even more dangerous.

First, drivers haven’t had to deal with school traffic since March. Commuters have had a five-month break from having to abide by those 25 mph speed limits or watch for many groups of kids and parents walking in school zones. And those actually still commuting have had an elongated reprieve from waiting behind stopped school buses and in the spilling carpooling lines from school driveways.

This weird pandemic purgatory not only has added to many waistlines and padded sedentary posteriors, but it has also made drivers soft, too. A lack of awareness and planning could cost a motorist some time stuck in a traffic jam. But the consequences are worse for complacence in a school zone.

“Back-to-school season looks a little different this year, but it’s still important for motorists to be vigilant and keep safety top of mind, " AAA spokeswoman Montrae Waiters said in a release last week.

A great step for anyone who drives through school zones in this preparation would be to first find out very simply if the respective school district is holding any in-person classes. That gets difficult, of course, because COVID-19 outbreaks have shut some individual schools in the early opening days.

Many Metro Atlanta counties are delaying in-person learning, are soft-opening certain campuses with partial capacities, or are allowing each family to decide if the student attends class at school or online. So there isn’t just this “on-off switch” for the return to school. But there no doubt are some districts already returning and some that plan to, which means drivers need to be alert.

Drivers also need to mind the 25 mph speed limit in school zones. AAA reminds motorists once again that someone hit by a car at 25 mph is two-thirds less likely to die than at 35 mph. Every little bit of caution makes a difference.

And remember that school-bus laws have gotten more lenient and then stricter again in the last couple of years. After some confusion two years ago, the rules became simple again. When a school bus stops to load or unload kids, all lanes in both directions of a road must stop. The only exception to this is that traffic coming in the opposite direction does not have to stop if that road or highway has a median separator. So, in most cases, entire roads stop for buses.

AAA also brings attention to another traffic hazard related to at-home learning. “Traditional school zone activity could move closer to home for many, and we are urging drivers to remain alert and expect increased foot and bicycle traffic at all times throughout the day,” Waiters said. Neighborhood streets that normally would be free of many kids during the day now may see more outside playing or on bicycles during recess periods at home. This is yet another unpredictable factor, but at least it is a continuation of a pattern seen since the end of last school year and expectedly through the summer months. So it isn’t new.

Some schools are in session, some are delayed. Some schools (including colleges) have in-person classes and some are online only. Some schools are fully open and some have a decreased capacity. Some school systems are randomly doing half-days. These times are confusing for kids and parents and anyone involved at the schools and for anyone driving around them. Now is the time to get re-trained on where school zones are and to do some research about what exactly the schools along a desired route are doing. The cost of not doing so is quite high.


Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.