In her fluorescent yellow jacket and white gloves, Mary Parker is a suburban icon: a school crossing guard. Rain or shine, she's all smiles, and she calls everyone, from the tiniest kindergartner to the cool middle-school kids, "Hon." Like crossing guards everywhere, her mere presence – plus the flick of a wrist – in the middle of an intersection in this Boston suburb can bring traffic to a screeching halt.
But that power is being challenged these days. Ms. Parker and her colleagues who work for the local police department are increasingly vying with cellphones for drivers' attention, and they are no longer 100 percent sure their gestures guarantee protection for school kids.
Parker recounts a "very scary" close call last spring as she was signaling traffic to stop while a group of children was crossing the street. The driver, who was on her cellphone, rolled right through the stop sign, oblivious to Parker's increasingly panicked signals from the middle of the intersection. Parker says the driver seemed to be looking directly at her but without eye contact.
"She said she didn't see me," Parker says with near-fresh astonishment, echoing an excuse many cellphone-using drivers give after accidents caused by what researchers call "inattention blindness."
"How did she not see me? I don't know. I'm not a small person. I'm dressed in yellow."
The driver finally stopped after Parker yelled at the top of her lungs.
"More people are on the phone than off the phone," observes Parker's colleague, Donna Tramontozzi, who has been a Needham crossing guard for six years and considers her job much more dangerous today – because of cellphones – than when she started. "They're not paying attention."