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Self-Driving Cars Doing The Tango With Those Heroic School Crossing Guards

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at September 3, 2021

A video went viral that showcased a school crossing guard heroically saving a child from crossing into the path of an oncoming car.

The mother of the child was standing across the street and watched in abject horror when her offspring began to dart forward and appeared completely unaware of the impending danger. With quick reflexes, the crossing guard waved his arm to block the child from further crossing, letting the car then skirt forward and go past the two of them.

Mother and child were then reunited, and the school crossing guard was hailed as a hero.

What do you call this?

Answer: Just another day in the life of a school crossing guard.

You see, being a school crossing guard is pretty much a sacred duty and filled daily with these kinds of rescues and heroic acts.

It is all quite a big deal when you think about it. A school crossing guard is entrusted to help guide young school children across the street. This act includes getting cars to come to a stop, thus letting the boisterous and joyful kids safely skip and hop their way over to the other side of the street, blissfully so.

Keep in mind that a car is a multi-ton vehicle that can readily overpower any human, young or old, and readily smack into and harm anyone within its path. Drivers of cars have at their hands the ability to knock people over, and yet drivers oftentimes treat the driving task carelessly, chatting while on their cellphone, watching cat videos, or pruning themselves for the day ahead.

The only means a crossing guard has to compel or more like persuade cars to come to a halt is a sign they are carrying and for which it says something akin to stop or halt.

You prominently hold-up the sign, usually made visible by being mounted on the end of a long stick, and presumably, the drivers of nearby cars will see and obey the signage. That’s the hope. That’s the dreamy notion that is supposed to work, presumably all of the time and without fail.

To garner additional attention, some crossing guards also wave their other arm or do a bit of a dance to be noticeable. They might also whistle or yell out to the drivers. Most crossing guards also wear some form of garb that makes them stand out, such as bright red colors and reflective strips or shiny buttons.

Of course, the crossing guard might enter into the street to make things plainly clear that it is time for cars to come to a halt. When standing up on the curb, it seems that some drivers perceive the waving of the sign as merely a warning and do not strictly believe they need to come to a stop. Only until the crossing guard is firmly implanted into the street will such drivers begin to believe that the crossing guard is really serious about wanting to have traffic come to a halt.

Even after moving into the street, this still might not be a sufficient indication for some stubborn or wanton drivers in their strident driving efforts and so they treat the crossing guard as an obstruction to maneuver around. Yes, that’s right, some drivers seem to think that the crossing guard is merely a kind of statue or object that perchance is in the way of driving. If you can get behind the crossing guard or pass in front of the passing guard, that’s perfectly fine (in the minds of these flighty drivers), as long as you don’t directly strike the crossing guard you are okay to proceed.

According to stats published by the NJLM, the accident rate for school crossing guards has sadly and dangerously increased by about 65% over the last decade or so.

Yikes!

That takes us back to the earlier point about the revered duty of a school crossing guard. Not only are they trying to save the lives of children, but they are also putting their own lives at risk too.

You probably are shocked to think that school crossing guards ever get run down or smacked by a car, since you would never imagine hitting one, but regrettably, some drivers do this dastardly act. Some drivers do so by happenstance, in the sense that they didn’t see the crossing guard and therefore plowed into the person without realizing what they were doing. Other drivers are more intentional, playing a kind of game with the crossing guard.

Do you remember the game of chicken that you might have played when you were young? You stare blankly at someone else. They are staring at you too. Whichever one of you looks away or maybe blinks first is the loser of the game. As a form of child’s play, this is simple enough and usually a safe thing to do.

The same game of chicken can occur between a crossing guard and a driver of a car that is trying to shove its ways forward and disobey the crossing guard.

The crossing guard is waving frantically to get the car to stop. The driver is staring at the crossing guard and essentially mouthing that the interloper had better get out of the way. In this one-on-one battle, neither side wants to back down. Of course, the car and the driver are heavily favored since a human being is not able to singlehandedly physically stop a car (only superheroes in the comic books can do that).

Here’s a curious and mind-bending facet about school crossings that dovetails into the matter of crossing guards and the potential for injuries or fatalities of these vaunted guardians.

The percentage of children that walk or bike to school has dropped precipitously from when we were youngsters. Reportedly per the NJLM, about 50% of kids used to walk or bike (that was thirty years ago), and now only around 15% do so.

Why care about this stat?

Your first thought is that this means a lot fewer kids are trying to cross the street. If there are a lot fewer kids seeking to cross the street, this would seem to suggest that the odds of any one of them getting struck by a passing car is lessened. Apparently, that is not quite the case, and in fact, the opposite seems to be occurring.

The missing factor is to include into your mental equation the vast numbers of kids that aren’t walking or biking are being driven to school. Those children have to get to school somehow. They are being driven. This means more drivers and more cars are converging upon a school during the most active moments when children would be crossing the street.

More cars mean more chances for a crossing child to get hit (i.e., more cars per capita of children crossing). Children are in a bizarre sense the proverbial sitting duck for all those maddeningly wayward-driven cars.

You betcha that those drivers are undoubtedly in a frenetic mode.

You’ve certainly seen this if you’ve ever driven nearby a school when it is opening in the morning or when the kids are being let out of school in the afternoon. These are crazed drivers. They weave into the traffic without much thought. Their focus is getting their kid, and being overly concerned about other children is not on their list of things to care about. It is a dog-eat-dog world, and this is the time to be a fighter.

The cars are in a fierce battle with each other. The kids on the street and the sidewalks are merely window dressing for the real head-to-head struggle that is taking place among the amazing machines called cars. One car driver notices that another driver has pulled ahead. That’s not right! So, the offended driver tries to jam into the line of cars. Sure, there might be children walking all around these vehicles, but that’s not important. What is important is ensuring the pecking order of the cars.

Into this ferocious morass steps the school crossing guard.

It would be like putting yourself into the midst of a herd of elephants, seemingly angry and rampaging elephants. Do you have an elephant gun to try and stop them? No, you have a thin stick with a shiny sign on the top of it. Not especially empowering. Human drivers will decide for themselves whether they want to abide by the crossing guard or not.

Very few crossing guards have any kind of policing capability per se.

They often are not legally empowered to issue tickets. They cannot bolster their actions by indicating that they have the full force of the law standing with them. Some drivers take a dim view of crossing guards for this very same reason. If the crossing guard is not an official arm of the law, this implies that the crossing guard is simply an optional roadway indicator and not someone or something of a mandatory requirement.

Many drivers are unaware that their state driver licensing code usually contains a provision that you are required to abide by the actions of a formal crossing guard. In theory, if you disobey a properly conveyed instruction about your driving action, you could be subject to getting a ticket and potentially losing your driver’s license. This is an aspect that few drivers take into account and summarily do not know or patently don’t believe is enforceable.

These same drivers would likely obey a stop sign at an intersection.

But the stop sign being held aloft by the crossing guard is given short shrift in comparison. This is why sometimes a crossing guard will wear an outlandish outfit, hopeful that maybe the mirth of the outfit will shock such drivers into a willingness to play along. If those drivers won’t accede to a normally attired crossing guard, perhaps one wearing oddball clothing will garner their attention and make them think twice about disobeying the instructions being issued.

Perhaps one of the biggest kickers to this whole situation is that many school crossing guards are not getting paid a dime.

In other words, they are out there trying to protect our children on a pure volunteer basis, meanwhile putting themselves at grave risk, and yet they do so solely for the heartwarming reason of helping others and not due to the pay involved. To clarify, even those getting paid are also equally performing an uplifting duty. The pay involved is oftentimes minuscule and only amounts to a few hours of work per day and thus not much-accumulated earnings during a school year. You can take a look at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website at section 33-9091 on the topic of occupational employment and wages of crossing guards if you’d like to see a breakdown on the annual pay and hours of crossing guards.

By the way, though the focus herein has been school crossing guards, please note that there are lots of other crossing guards that daily aid in stopping cars and letting people cross the street. There are crossing guards at downtown intersections, and construction sites, and the mall, and so on. Note too that all these crossing guards are not just protecting children, they also help protect adult pedestrians too.

I’m sure that some adults are insulted at the notion of a crossing guard trying to protect them.

Shouldn’t all adults be responsible enough on their own to know when to cross the street? This same kind of thinking will often surface when an adult is wanting to urgently cross the street and believes that the judgment of the crossing guard is wrong or overly delayed. The viewpoint seems to be that the crossing guard might be for those other “idiots” waiting to cross, but not for those that are of their own mind and can make their own darned judgments.

Returning to the discussion on school crossing guards, it was noted that more cars than ever are congregating into a tight space-time continuum when it comes to arriving at a school for picking up or dropping off their kids. This makes the school crossing guard role even more vital, and more harried, and riskier.

Keep your eye on the cars, that’s the crux of the entire matter.

If there were no cars, there would by-and-large be no worry about children crossing the street (one supposes that bikes and other threats might persist, though this would be less menacing overall than cars). Until we all have jetpacks, you might as well assume that cars will prevail. Of course, the hope would be that mass transit might be used in place of cars, but that’s a different discussion for another day (see my coverage at this link here).

Assume that cars are here to stay.

The future of cars includes the advent of self-driving cars. These are cars that are being driven by an AI driving system and not being driven by a human driver.

Here’s the intriguing question to consider: Will self-driving cars do a better job of abiding by school crossing guards and are school crossing guards going to be better off by the emergence of self-driving cars?

Let’s unpack the matter and see.

Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars

As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.

These driverless vehicles are considered a Level 4 and Level 5 (see my explanation at this link here), while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at a Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).

There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.

Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some contend, see my coverage at this link here).

Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).

For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.

You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.

Self-Driving Cars And Crossing Guards

For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.

All occupants will be passengers.

The AI is doing the driving.

A touted benefit of AI driving systems is that they won’t be driving while drunk, and they won’t be watching cat videos or otherwise distracted while driving. As such, the current and heartwrenching statistic that there are about 40,000 car crash-related fatalities annually in the U.S. and around 2.5 million related injuries is predicted to drop tremendously (for more on these stats, see the link here).

Some assert that the number of fatalities will reach zero. I’ve repeatedly exhorted that there is a zero chance of reaching zero. The physics belie the likelihood of achieving a zero count of fatalities.

Here’s what I mean.

A child is standing between two parked cars. The child cannot be seen and is essentially hidden from view by the large-sized parked automobiles. A self-driving car is coming down the street at the posted speed limit of say 35 miles per hour. Suddenly, the child darts into the street, directly in front of the self-driving car. The distance between the self-driving car and the child is now about 10 feet.

Let’s assume that the self-driving car instantaneously detects the child, and the AI driving system immediately jams on the brakes. The stopping distance depending upon the situation (weather conditions, type of brakes, etc.), probably is around 50 to 75 feet.

Compute the math, and you’ll realize the child is going to get hit by the self-driving car.

My point is that despite all the super-duper tech of a self-driving car, and assuming it is working at peak performance, there are still nonetheless going to be car crashes and there will (sadly) be human deaths and injuries.

Put the zero out of your mind and be relieved and eager that we will at least be reducing demonstrably the number of car crashes. The logic on that assumption is that if self-driving cars do not drink and drive, and they aren’t driving while distracted, and if they drive as safely as humans normally do today, this would right away cut out around 30% to 50% of existing car crashes (or more). That’s a lot of saved lives and averted injuries.

Back to the topic of the school crossing guards.

The expectation is that AI driving systems are going to drive in a strictly legal manner. They will abide stridently by the posted speed limit. They will always come to a full stop at stop signs. They will never run a red light. To the degree feasible, the AI driving systems will be programmed to be the most law-abiding driver that you can envision.

Okay, this suggests that the AI driving systems will certainly obey a school crossing guard.

If only the world was that easy and straightforward!

First, the AI driving system has to detect that a school crossing guard is present. This detection is a lot harder than you might imagine. Humans can easily scan a driving scene and spot a crossing guard. Getting the AI systems to do so, even using the latest in Machine Learning and Deep Learning, can be quite challenging.

If the school crossing guard is indeed spotted, the next difficulty is trying to figure out what the school crossing guard is doing and what their actions signify.

For example, suppose there aren’t any children nearby and thus the crossing guard is standing at the curb, leaning casually somewhat while waiting for kids to arrive. The long pole with the sign is being held in the hand of the crossing guard. The stop indication is clearly visible.

Suppose the sensors of the self-driving car have detected the presence of the crossing guard. The mathematical analysis of the video images show that this is a seemingly bona fide crossing guard, and they are holding a sign, and the sign indicates the word Stop. The AI driving system has been programmed to always obey the school crossing guard.

Thus, the self-driving car comes to an immediate stop.

Yay, it has done what we want it to do.

But, has it?

In this use case, the crossing guard is not trying to stop traffic. They are merely holding the sign gingerly and not attempting to thrust it or proclaim it upon the passing cars.

The AI driving system is going to have a tough time trying to discern when the crossing guard is actively using the sign and desirous of stopping traffic versus when the school crossing guard is waiting for the right moment to do so. Human capabilities at surveying a driving scene, analyzing the elements of the scene, ascertaining the meaning of those elements, and then taking an aligned driving action is a lot more complicated than we give due credit for.

Also, a school crossing guard is a potential moving object. And, each crossing guard is unique in the sense that they each look different from each other. Sure, there is a commonality in that they are likely adults, they are likely attired in something that we assume signifies a crossing guard, and they are likely carrying a sign.

All of those factors add further complexity to the matter at hand.

Got a novel twist for you.

A local sandwich shop is trying to attract customers. They put outside their shop and stationed at the curb a person in a colorful outfit that is holding a sign aloft. The sign says “Stop for Joe’s” and looks akin to a stop sign.

This could easily be mistaken as a crossing guard that is holding a sign to stop traffic.

Humans would be less likely fooled since they would assess the context of the setting, namely, the person is standing near a sandwich shop and we’ve seen this kind of promotional or marketing effort before. When comparing the situation to that of a normal crossing guard, there are apparent mismatches and thus the human would ascertain this is not a crossing guard instance.

Getting an AI system to be able to undertake that same kind of calculated contortions is not easy. Also, for clarity, there isn’t any AI that is yet sentient, and we are not going to likely have sentient AI for a long time to come (if ever, some would assert). So don’t be betting on magical sentience to save the day toward achieving robust AI driving systems.

Conclusion

The assumption that a self-driving car will always abide by a school crossing guard is accurate in the theory of wanting to have that occur, but the practical reality of programming the AI and getting it to do so is much more complex and not readily out-of-the-box viable.

In short, this is a hard problem.

The automakers and self-driving tech firms are working on coping with school crossing guards, but it is pretty much still a nascent capability and subject to faltering and not doing what you would hope would occur. Some AI developers have put this onto an edge or corner case list, meaning that it is something they will get done at a later time, but it isn’t a particularly high priority right now.

Getting the AI to do the everyday driving, safely so, consumes their attention right now.

One could argue that perhaps it is rare to come upon a school crossing guard. You have to be driving nearby to a school, usually, and you have to be driving at a time of day that a school crossing guard would be on duty. Yet, for any daily commute or even driving to the grocery store, this seems a lot higher odds than one might initially assume. Furthermore, the importance of the school crossing guard cannot be understated, for which if they aren’t properly detected and aren’t obeyed, puts children at heightened risk.

Those developing and fielding self-driving cars need to keep their nose to the grind and continue to improve and enhance the AI-based capabilities coping with school crossing guards.

There is also the upcoming hope that via the widespread adoption of V2P (vehicle-to-pedestrian) electronic communications, a school crossing guard could via their smartphone inform the AI about what to do. That will be advantageous, but even this electronic wizardry is insufficient in that the AI still ought to be able to gauge the school crossing guard, just in case the person is not equipped with a smartphone or otherwise unable to communicate electronically with the vehicle.

It takes two to tango, and in the case of self-driving cars and school crossing guards, they will need to coordinate and act in unison, ensuring that those precious and precocious children are able to safely get across the street.

The next time that you see a school crossing guard, I hope that you will think about all that they do to protect all of us.

I’m sure that if AI does become sentient, it would tell those school crossing guards a hearty thank you for their heroic efforts.

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