If you saw a giant traffic cone waving and smiling at you, you'd probably pay more attention to the road.

It's a tactic that's worked for Whitney Durfee, who frequently wears a cone costume for her job as a crossing guard at Trailside Elementary School in Vineyard.

The Vineyard mother of seven bought the costume to wear on Halloween in 2021. After several times almost getting hit by a car while on duty in 2022, she started wearing the cone to work with the hope that it would help distracted drivers pay more attention.

Distracted driving has been on the rise in Utah County, and drowsy driving incidents have increased across the state.

Durfee said she has "definitely" seen an improvement in safety around Trailside Elementary since donning the costume.

"It has helped a lot, just to be out there in that (costume) and to show drivers that I'm there … and that there are kids crossing," she said. "It's fun just to see everyone's reaction and to (remind) them that it's a school zone and that they really need to start paying attention."

Pedestrian accidents have also increased across Utah. There were 53 pedestrian deaths in the state in 2022, up from 45 in 2021, according to the Utah Department of Transportation.

Twelve of those deaths, or just more than one-fifth, were children ages zero to 9, said UDOT Senior Communications Manager Mitch Shaw.

In December, an 11-year-old girl was struck and killed in the crosswalk by Bonneville Elementary School in Salt Lake City. One month later, two children were hospitalized after being hit by a car in the crosswalk by Hawthorne Elementary School, also in Salt Lake City.

Durfee doesn't wear the cone every shift, but she pulls it out again every couple of days, especially after close calls.

And there are still many of those close calls. Durfee said she sees lots of distracted drivers, speeding, and cars that don't stop even when she is in the middle of the crosswalk.

Once a man stopped his car just a foot away from Durfee when she was in the crosswalk. The driver rolled down his window and said, "Sorry, I didn't see you. I'm just on my way to get my son from school."

Durfee recalled thinking, "I'm a mom. I need to get my kids home from school, too." It was a poignant moment for her as she realized that the driver didn't think about how she was also a parent, just like him.

Whitney Durfee works as a crossing guard outside Trailside Elementary School in Vineyard on Friday. Durfee started dressing as a traffic cone to raise awareness for the importance of avoiding distracted driving and speeding in school zones.
Whitney Durfee works as a crossing guard outside Trailside Elementary School in Vineyard on Friday. Durfee started dressing as a traffic cone to raise awareness for the importance of avoiding distracted driving and speeding in school zones. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"We crossing guards are people, too," Durfee said. "We need to get home to our families. We need to be able to be safe, and the kids need to be safe, and I just know we can do better."

Three of Durfee's children attend Trailside Elementary School. She said her daughter prays daily that her mom won't get hit by a car while on duty.

"She's seen that happen, me almost getting hit, and so she's a little bit scared," Durfee said. "And she has every reason to be because it is a scary job."

School zone safety tips

Shaw urged drivers to be more aware of pedestrians.

"It's absolutely paramount that drivers make a special effort to completely stop and look at intersections and crosswalks and just generally pay attention and be on the lookout for pedestrians," he said.

Parents can also teach their children habits to keep them safer while crossing the street, such as wearing reflective clothing and choosing safe routes to walk, Shaw said.

Durfee suggested drivers leave five minutes earlier than they think they need to so they can avoid speeding in school zones.

She also shared the reminder for drivers to wait until children are all the way onto the sidewalk, not just halfway across the street, before driving forward.

"We just need to slow down," Durfee said. "People need to … make sure that they're looking and watching for what we're doing so that we can all be safe and so that all these kids can get home to their families safely."