Braden Pines’ Virginia Beecher crosses State Road 70 to River Club Boulevard each school day to pick up her grandchildren at Braden River Elementary and Braden River Middle.
With the help of two crossing guards Jan. 27, Beecher took less than the 45 seconds allowed to make it across the highway onto River Club Boulevard at 4:10 p.m. when the signal had stopped traffic.
The concern for Beecher comes once the 45 seconds are over, when the light changes to green on S.R. 70, and cars begin to whiz past at varying speeds that can reach 60 mph or more.
Since the signs for the “school zone” have been removed and replaced by “school entrance” signs, many drivers have been confused as to whether they need to slow down while the yellow light flashes above the “school entrance” sign.
“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” Beecher said. “We see so many cars thinking it’s still the [20 mph] speed limit, and so they slam on their brakes, and everybody else is going 50. There’s going to be an accident.”
As of January, the school zone on S.R. 70 has been modified, which means cars no longer have to abide by the 20 mph speed limit previously put in place as a result of the school zone.
The school zone that starts after turning onto River Club Boulevard remains in place.
The change comes after the Manatee County Traffic Engineering staff requested the Florida Department of Transportation conduct a review of the school zone. The review was conducted early last year in consultation with FDOT, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and the School Board of Manatee County.
The school zone used to require vehicles to slow down to 20 mph during the “30 minutes before, during and after the period of time when pupils are arriving at a regularly scheduled breakfast program or a regularly scheduled school session and leaving a regularly scheduled school session,” according to FDOT’s Speed Zoning manual for highways, roads and streets.
FDOT spokesperson Brian Rick said the Manatee County Traffic Engineering staff questioned the validity of the reduced speed school zone for several reasons including that it is not required in the FDOT Speed Zoning Manual. The staff also questioned the length of time the school zone flashers were affecting vehicle operations of S.R. 70 during peak times, and they suggested that the number of children crossing the road at the intersection didn’t make it appropriate for a school zone.
Rick said the decision was made to modify the school zone because the existing school zone speed reduction was not required due to having a safe school crossing location at the intersection of S.R. 70, River Club Boulevard and Forest Run Drive.
“The signal provides a safe controlled crossing location and meets the requirements to do so,” Rick said. “Therefore, a school zone speed reduction is not necessary.”
Although vehicles are no longer required to slow down on S.R. 70, there are measures in place to promote safety.
A leading pedestrian interval, which prioritizes and promotes pedestrian movement and safety across the intersection, is in place. There is a “no right turn” blank out sign facing the northbound right turn lane to turn onto S.R. 70 as well as updated pedestrian crossing warning signs and a flashing school entrance warning sign that has a flashing light.
Crossing guards will remain at the intersection to help pedestrians cross the street safely. Pedestrians only cross with the crossing guard when a pedestrian walk signal is displayed.
Residents in the Braden Pines neighborhood, which is on Forest Run Drive, are concerned about drivers speeding through the intersection.
“For a couple hours, people can slow down to protect our kids,” Beecher said. “It’s not a great big neighborhood, but still, they need to get to school.”
Laura Schuyler, a Braden Pines resident and mother of a Braden River Middle School student, said crossing S.R. 70 can feel like a real-life game of Frogger because cars go different speeds down the highway, and some zigzag through the lanes to try to pass other cars.
Alison Neville, a Braden Pines resident, said she wasn’t aware of the change and was confused when a car came rushing behind her while she was driving on S.R. 70 on Jan. 21.
Beth Carlton, a Braden Pines resident, said she and her neighbors fought hard to have the school zone with a speed limit put in place when her son was attending the school as S.R. 70 was made into a three-lane highway.
“Our kids’ safety should be the No. 1 priority in my personal opinion,” Carlton said. “I am glad to hear the crossing guards are still going to be there because our middle school kids go over on their own. I wouldn’t be comfortable with my kid crossing a six-lane highway.”
Many Braden Pines residents said they feel their neighborhood is often overlooked because of its size and where it’s located.
“We’ve always been the red-headed stepchildren over here in this neighborhood,” Carlton said. “We get kind of pushed aside because we’re not Lakewood Ranch, and we don’t have a homeowners association, which is how we like it, but we still have kids. We still feel we are members of the community. We pay our taxes just like everybody else.”
Braden Pines’ Leslie Silver said the school zone speed limit should be restored as East County continues to grow and more cars will drive down S.R. 70 at high speeds.
Amber DePasquale, a mother of a student at Braden River Middle School, said she was slowing down to 20 mph after the modification because she saw the flashing yellow light above the “school entrance” sign, and a car honked at her.
Although she’s aware of the change now, she said she noticed other cars still slowing down Jan. 29 and almost saw two accidents as a result.
Tara’s Jeannie Griffis said she’s an advocate for children and safety, but she’s never seen a child near S.R. 70 when she has driven by. The school zone modification has made traffic flow “much better,” Griffis said.