School-run violence drives lollipop people off the roads

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The Independent Online

Every day they step fearlessly into the path of juggernauts and family saloons to ensure the safety of the nation's children. But in recent years the ranks of Britain's lollipop men and women, taken for granted by millions of parents and often regarded as a nuisance by rush-hour motorists, have been dwindling at an alarming rate.

Every day they step fearlessly into the path of juggernauts and family saloons to ensure the safety of the nation's children. But in recent years the ranks of Britain's lollipop men and women, taken for granted by millions of parents and often regarded as a nuisance by rush-hour motorists, have been dwindling at an alarming rate.

There are now only 28,000 school crossing patrol wardens, leaving at least 25 per cent of posts vacant across the country as wardens quit their jobs in protest at low pay and a rise in the number of attacks by irate motorists. It is a recruitment headache for local authorities, with council road safety officers complaining that hundreds of schools now lack adequate cover.

A senior civil servant says the Government needs to examine whether lollipop men and women, who are often prevented from taking other employment by their awkward hours, should be included in a tax exemption scheme for essential public workers.

But while low pay is an important issue, many patrol wardens also point to an increasing atmosphere of violence and intimidation as the reason for their declining numbers. At least 100 serious road accidents involving lollipop men and women were reported to the Department of Transport in the past year alone.

They included a crossing warden in Essex whose leg was broken in a collision with a car and an attack in Cambridgeshire in which a lollipop man was shot in the head with an air rifle. Two years ago, a patrol officer was killed in Lincolnshire when she was run over by a driver who claimed he had been blinded by the sun.

Francis Dansie, the senior road safety officer at Bristol City Council, which has the highest shortfall in the country with 50 per cent of designated crossing places vacant, said: "People are desperately needed but this is a job that nobody wants. It is not well paid, and lollipop people frequently have to put up with dangerous working conditions."

According to the Local Authority Road Safety Officers' Association many potential applicants for the vacant posts are being put off by antisocial behaviour encountered on the job.

Steve Whitehouse, chairman of the association, said: "Young mothers or retired people, who make up the majority of patrols, are easily deterred by verbal abuse from drivers, parents and children. Many drivers fail to stop for crossing patrol officers even though it is a legal requirement to do so. Lollipop people are regarded as unofficial and considered as a nuisance by drivers in a hurry."

In an attempt to attract new crossing wardens, local authorities are offering increased pay and are distributing publicity leaflets to raise the profile of the job. But council bosses admit the limited working hours make it unattractive financially.

Ken Speak, road safety officer for Lancashire County Council, said: "Patrols are regarded by job centres as part-time workers, but in fact they have a full-time commitment. A typical week involves eight hours split into two hourly sessions per day: morning and afternoon, and sometimes lunchtimes as well. This means it is difficult for patrol officers to do anything else with the day or have other part-time jobs."

Sutton Borough Council, like other local authorities in the London area, pays its crossing staff a salary of £7 per hour, compared to the national average of £5.60, but still cannot attract staff. Thirty-five per cent of posts remain vacant.Roy Buchanan, borough road safety officer said: "We have tried everything, including leaflet dropping, recruitment in schools and local advertising. In one month alone, £700 was spent on advertising which resulted in just one inquiry and no job applications."

Councils and crossing patrol officers say a lack of tax incentives, coupled with low pay, make the work financially unrewarding. Two of Lancashire County Council's wardens recently left their jobs for tax-related reasons.

The Department for Work and Pensions is being lobbied to include patrol wardens in a special earnings tax bracket or agree to disregard some of their income, thereby doubling the amount they can earn before their benefit payments are reduced. Chris Pond, a Work and Pensions minister, said: "I am sympathetic to the arguments for including school crossing patrol officers within the higher disregard."

LIFE IN THE FAST LANE

Veronica Jones, Wrexham

"I've had two drive-throughs when I've been standing in the middle of the road," says the 59-year-old lollipop lady. "I have no idea how one lady missed me; she came right at me and didn't stop. Another man had plenty of time to brake but didn't. It is shocking, as the local people know where the schools are." She said problem drivers had not caused any of the town's crossing patrol staff to leave, but could see how hearing about road rage might put someone off applying for the job.

Laura Dodds, Falkirk

Laura Dodds became a lollipop lady in November 2003 aged 18. Fourteen months later she enjoys her job, but has found aggressive driving a problem and is looking for a full-time alternative. "Car drivers are a nightmare," she says. "Everyone's in a rush in the morning to drop off the kids and get to work. It is a worry. But the pay is fine and even though it's cold outside, if you keep moving it doesn't bother you." She said her favourite aspect of the job was meeting the children.

Irene Reid, Longridge, Lancashire

Despite the challenges of the job, Irene Reid, 65, loves being a lollipop lady - so much so she has been doing it for 36 years and never taken a day off sick.

"It is the perfect job for anyone who's got a family," says Lancashire's longest-serving lollipop lady.

"You have the same holidays, the same start and finish times each day. That's why I started doing it. I had four children and all I wanted to do was earn some money."

Oliver Duff

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