'Never boring': A day in the life of an Ottawa crossing guard

·4 min read
Acting as a human shield, Murnaghan trots into the middle of intersections to alert drivers of pedestrians crossing the road. (Giacomo Panico/CBC - image credit)
Acting as a human shield, Murnaghan trots into the middle of intersections to alert drivers of pedestrians crossing the road. (Giacomo Panico/CBC - image credit)

If you thought being a school crossing guard meant mostly standing still and extending your arms now and then, you haven't seen Eleanor Murnaghan in action.

Dressed in a safety vest and armed with her stop sign paddle and electronic whistle, Murnaghan works a busy section of Ottawa's Maitland Avenue during the morning and afternoon rush hours.

"It's never boring here," Murnaghan said. "There's always something happening. Whether it's pedestrians or cars, you have to always be watching."

And moving. The intersection she patrols has two traffic lights for the two offset cross streets — Erindale Drive and Glenmount Avenue — meaning she has to cover 40 metres between the intersection's opposing corners.

"It's not a regular square intersection, it's a rectangular intersection," she said. "You have to hot-foot it if you want to catch as many people as possible."

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

Murnagahn intercepts Brennan Lee and his two children twice a day.

"Oh my goodness, this is the worst intersection in the city. It's quite dangerous," said Lee. "Every day Eleanor runs across the street to make sure that we're OK and she helps us with a big giant smile."

For Murnaghan, the connection runs both ways.

"The biggest thing for me is seeing the smiling faces every day and saying 'hi' and just being out here with the people that are using the intersection," she said.

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

Aggressive drivers getting worse

What's not so fun is the dangerous behaviour of many drivers, from speeding to improper right turns on reds, which Murnaghan says has only become worse since the reopening of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"They are a lot more aggressive. They're a lot more impatient," she says.

"They're so focused on getting to where they're going that they don't seem to have the understanding that pedestrians need to get somewhere, too, and they need to get there safely and not have a car trying to hurry them across the road, especially with little kids that can't walk as quickly."

Making matters worse, she says, are the motorists who go out of their way to disparage her in front of the kids.

"I have had a number of drivers call me nasty names, cursing and swearing at me ... they have flipped me the finger and been very, very nasty," said Murnaghan, adding she does her best to avoid confrontations by not responding to the insults.

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

For support, she says she turns to a private Facebook group of fellow crossing guards across the city.

"It's kind of nice to be able to connect and see that we're not the only ones having aggressive driver issues. So that's good."

If she could speak to aggressive drivers, Murnaghan says she would deliver this message: "We're out there to protect the kids so that they can cross the road safely. We're not trying to make a mess of your day and make you late for work."

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

Shortage of guards

You will find school crossing guards at 260 intersections across Ottawa, according to Kelly Banks, director of programs for the Ottawa Safety Council, which the City of Ottawa contracts to run the program.

But much like the city's shortage of school bus drivers, Banks says there's a need for more crossing guards to properly meet current demand, as well as staff the eight additional intersections the city hopes to add to the council's list.

"This year we seem to be having a hard time getting caught up in terms of staffing and we still have intersections that aren't staffed by a regular crossing guard," said Banks.

"We've been able to maintain pretty much 100 per cent coverage, however it's putting a strain on our backups and our scheduling resources."

She adds the areas most in need of new crossing guards are Barrhaven, Wellington West, Westboro, Centretown and the Glebe.

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

Banks says she's hopeful more candidates will apply this fall, lured by the job's split shift — 40 minutes in the morning and 40 minutes in the afternoon — a salary of $17 per shift, and an opportunity to make our streets safer.

"Anybody who would like to give back to the community, who enjoys working with children, being outside, getting active ... the crossing guard role would be perfect for them," she said.

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

For her part, Murnaghan says she was first attracted to the job by a desire make the roads safer for children, and has stayed with it mostly because of the smiles she gets every day.

"The good far outweighs the bad. ... I think I can speak for almost every guard in the city, the best part about the job is the kids and the families, because it makes it worth it."

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC
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