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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
James Sweeten walks with his children and other neighborhood kids in Holladay Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014. UDOT’s Walking School Bus app is a free, safety-focused app, for iPhone and Andoid, that encourages parents to create and plan walks safely to and from school. It also alerts parents when students have arrived at school.
There's safety in numbers. When you can send them in a group you feel a lot better about sending them off to school. —James Sweeten

HOLLADAY — Nathan Sweeten will be in fifth grade when classes at Howard R. Driggs Elementary School resume this month.

He's excited for the new year, says his favorite parts of school are recess and reading, and he likes being able to talk with his friends on his way to class.

Nathan doesn't ride the bus. Instead, the form of transportation for him and a group of roughly five children is "usually scooters, but sometimes we walk."

His father, James Sweeten, said even in a safe neighborhood there's a worry of drivers and other hazards on the road as school children walk or ride to school.

"There's safety in numbers," Sweeten said. "When you can send them in a group you feel a lot better about sending them off to school."

A new smartphone app, launched Tuesday by the Utah Department of Transportation, aims to facilitate the creation of safe walking groups.

The UDOT Walking School Bus app, available for Apple and Android devices, assists parents in forming groups, coordinating chaperones and organizing schedules.

It sends an alert to parents when their children arrive safely at school and also tracks the distance walked, the calories burned and the emissions saved by avoiding vehicle travel.

"We know that the No. 1 concern for parents is child safety," said Cherissa Wood, manager of UDOT's School and Pedestrian Safety Program. "They don’t want their kids to walk or bike to school because they’re concerned about safety and because UDOT is all about safety, we want to help resolve some of those issues."

Wood said the app began in analog form, with a group of parents at Howard Driggs who got together to organize a walking group. The Walking School Bus program was effective, but it required constant communication between parents to verify who was walking with students the next morning and which students would and would not be joining the group for the day.

With the help of parents, UDOT began working on an app form of the program two years ago, Wood said, with a beta version being tested for the past several months.

"It just makes it easier for parents to organize these walking groups within their neighborhoods," Wood said. "Most people have a smartphone and this allows them to really organize it in an easy way and coordinate with everybody all at once."

Darci Hall, one of the parents involved in the pilot testing group, said the app is user-friendly, requiring authorization by a group administrator to prevent prying eyes from accessing information and allowing parents to add or remove their children from the list of students who need to be picked up in the morning.

She said a parent acting as chaperone on a particular day has a clear list of the students walking with the group and with a single click can let the other parents know when they've arrived at school.

"I love that there is a parent that is with the kids every day," Wood said. "When the kids get to school there’s the ability to click and alert all the parents that the kids have made it safely, which I think is a great function."

Lynley Johnson, who has two children currently attending elementary school, said she is part of a group of seven parents who take turns accompanying their children to school.

She said the app eases the process of coordinating with parents, but also said it would be beneficial for new families moving into a new area who are looking for ways to get their children to class.

"You’d be able to go in there and see which groups live near you and so you could join a group that’s already established," she said.

Wood said the app is geographically based, and parents can select their school district and school to see what groups exist or create their own. She said the app is free and available for parents throughout the state.

"We just want to encourage parents to download the app instead of doing a traditional carpool," Wood said. "This year for back to school, organize with the groups in your neighborhood for a walking school bus instead."

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: bjaminwood