There is questionable wisdom in putting children in the path of oncoming cars operated by people without driver’s licenses, but every good idea has to start somewhere.
That was probably the thinking behind the start of the safety patrol, the nationwide program that assigns school students at crosswalks so others can cross streets safely.
The safety patrol concept can be traced back to the 1920s, when the then-novel automobile was beginning to rapidly populate streets. The development of cars was outpacing infrastructure, meaning that drivers and their vehicles were navigating roads that had few or no traffic lights or signs. There was virtually no testing a driver’s skill to qualify for a license, either.
With few rules for drivers, pedestrians were largely left to their own best judgement. Crossing roads was often a spontaneous and somewhat dangerous proposition, especially for younger children. That led schools to begin instituting some common-sense practices to ensure the safety of their students.
While many states developed their own safety patrols independently and concurrently, some of the best documentation involves the school officials in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1921, the city council of St. Paul created the St. Paul School Police, a group headed by full-time employee Frank Hetznecker. He, in turn, received support from Sister Carmela Hanggi, the principal of St. Paul Cathedral School.
The St. Paul School Police were trained in how to monitor intersections and evaluate when it was safe to cross, with older students leading the younger ones from one sidewalk to the next. More than 750 students participated in the program.
It’s believed the first national program was the work of the American Automobile Association (AAA). According to the organization, Chicago AAA president Charles M. Hayes was unfortunate enough to witness a fatal traffic accident involving children. In 1920, he developed a program that would guide adults and kids in how to best deal with traffic, a program that would eventually grow to include the input of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers as well as the National Safety Council by the 1930s.
AAA helped raised visibility for safety patrols by holding rallies and even an annual parade in Washington, D.C. AAA also created a pledge for safety patrol members:
“I pledge to report for duty on time, perform my duties faithfully, strive to prevent accidents, always setting a good example myself, obey my teachers and officers of the patrol, report dangerous student practices, strive to earn the respect of followers.”
By way of an official uniform, the program adopted what became known as the “Sam Browne belt”—a diagonal strap resembling a seat belt that was later modified to be a reflective orange or green. The belt was named after Sam Browne, a British general who had lost his arm in combat. To help steady his sword sheath, he added a shoulder strap to make it possible to draw his weapon with one hand. (It is important to note that safety patrol officers do not typically carry swords.)
This being the mid-20th century, it was initially believed that boys made the best patrol officers; girls were prohibited from wielding the handheld stop signs. That began to change in the 1940s, when communities began opening up recruitment to everyone.
Today, the 675,000 students who participate in safety patrol programs can rise in the ranks all the way to captain, which assigns posts to officers and monitors them. It appears to be good practice for leadership: Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were onetime patrol officers.