As the new year begins for the thousands of children who headed back to school this week across East County, please take the opportunity to recommit yourself to making sure your driving habits don't put any of these kids in harm's way.

The risks are very real for easily distracted children who walk to and from school, wait for buses, and who get on and off these buses. And, it seems, the big, yellow behemoths that carry students aren't always enough to provide them with protection.

A Fairview boy was hospitalized Thursday after the school bus he was riding home from morning kindergarten was hit by a car driven by a man who reportedly blew through a red light. That wasn't even one full week into the school year. The boy was one of 18 kindergartners on the bus.

Here's something to consider: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics released for 2008, 20 percent of all children between 5 and 9 years old who were killed nationwide in traffic crashes were pedestrians. In that age group, there were 78 pedestrian deaths and 4,000 pedestrian injuries.

Out of the millions of U.S. school kids, that's a pretty small number of deaths and injuries. That's good, but we all can agree that zero would have been better.

Having said that, keeping these things in mind during your morning and afternoon commutes will help ensure safety for everyone:

School zones: OK, you know the speed limit is 20 mph in posted school zones. And you know that if you get caught speeding in those zones you could face a citation that will set you back $724. But the possibility of a ticket shouldn't be your No. 1 reason for slowing down. As a responsible operator of car or pickup, you know you can't stop fast enough when a child darts out into traffic. Because school zones are a natural gathering place for kids, the odds go up for an auto-vs.-pedestrian collision. Slow down.

Outside of school zones: Just because you aren't driving in a school zone doesn't mean children aren't nearby. These areas allow faster speed limits and are just as prone to the unpredictability of children. Your attentive driving in these areas is every bit as important as your concentration while in a school zone. Outside of school zones, you're likely to encounter buses as they pick up or drop off children. The flashing yellow lights mean 'stop.' And the flashing red lights mean 'stop.' And the 'stop' sign on the side of the bus means 'stop.' Please stop.

Distracted driving: Your cell phone conversation can wait. So can your text messages. Don't let your focus shift from the safety of young pedestrians. One split second taken to glance at a cell phone could be the difference between a scare and a death.

Please help keep the number of fatalities and injuries low among young pedestrians by doing your part to keep these kids safe.

Steve Brown is executive editor of The Gresham Outlook, Sandy Post and Estacada News.

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