The store was three blocks away from our home and the trip involved crossing a busy street with a stoplight. I still remember standing at the corner of Park Avenue and Race Street in San Jose as the cars passed by and I pushed and pushed at that cold little metal button in its groove.
The store was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Lamb. I found it an intimidating experience and thought they were both "mean." At least they never smiled. Maybe they just didn't have patience for a shy little girl who couldn't make up her mind about the penny candy after she picked up the coffee. One time I accidentally bought drip coffee and had to go back. That was an excruciating experience, far outside my comfort zone. But I don't think that occurred to my mother. "You got the wrong coffee! Better take it back." And off I went.
But my point here is how wonderful that I had this freedom. It was in the 1950s, a peaceful era, before we worried about "stranger danger," but it was a city nonetheless and there were cars on the streets. The only traffic safety tips I remember receiving were "Look both ways before crossing the street" and "Stay on the curb until the light changes."
Traffic then didn't compare with now. Even Race Street, which warranted stoplights, was only two lanes and sleepy by today's local standards. Now intersections on the main thoroughfares around here have a surfeit of lights and instructions. Green lights and red lights are for cars; pedestrians get special written instructions. Walk; don't walk; you have 15 seconds, 14, 13, 12 ... A bird call sounds to alert those who don't have good enough vision to see the lights. It can all be confusing.
The thought of a child going alone across four, six or more lanes of cars is scary, even if the vehicles are all dutifully stopped. It takes an adult with a height advantage to look out over the traffic and assess the situation.
Enter Street Smarts, the traffic safety program run by the School District, the county, the cities of Danville and San Ramon and other agencies. It was started by the Troy and Alana Pack Foundation, which was begun after those two children, at ages 10 and 7, were killed in October 2003 while walking down Camino Tassajara one lovely warm evening with their mother and friends. Suddenly a woman swerved her Mercedes off the road and into the group of pedestrians, devastating a family and a community. The Pack family has since been dedicated to tightening state regulations on prescription drugs and drivers, as well as teaching traffic safety to students in the school district.
After five years, the program is still going strong. It has a drawing contest each year in the elementary schools, a video contest for middle-schoolers, and an "It Happens" driving program for those in high school. Last week the elementary school children were honored for their drawings at the Dougherty Valley Performing Arts Center. Ten of the pictures were chosen to illustrate a book that combines a pirate adventure with the importance of traffic safety, especially while riding bicycles.
The art was wonderful - judging must have been tough. It takes some imagination to create a pirate on a bicycle, wearing a helmet no less, but they did it. Helmets are something else new in the last 50 years. When the law first mandated helmets for young cyclists in the 1990s, I couldn't imagine it. But by golly, the kids - and adults - are wearing helmets, and we're all buckling up for safety, too. While we're now living in a a more dangerous age, it's safer in some ways.
Maybe it's not safe enough for a little girl to walk by herself three blocks to the corner store any more, but Street Smarts has helped all of us adapt to our changing world. Its programs keep us continually aware of the importance of living safely with wide streets and fast cars.
-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.