A white van pulled into an illegal space in front of Kester Avenue School in Van Nuys at 7:40 on a recent morning and a child jumped out.
"Passenger exiting vehicle," traffic enforcement officer Tony Yancey said as he trained his video camera on the scene unfolding 100 yards up the block. "No stop, tow-away [zone]."
Yancey zoomed in on the license plate number. Within two weeks, the driver will receive a $60 ticket in the mail.
School district, safety and law enforcement officials say the traffic problem is yet another side effect of overcrowded schools. To ease the congestion, exasperated school officials are devising innovative ways to curb the maneuvers of impatient, discourteous or time-challenged parents during the morning drop-off.
In Los Angeles, the city Department of Transportation has formed a unit to catch renegade drivers on tape. It has been called out to 67 schools across the sprawling district and has issued hundreds of citations. When traffic officers, volunteers or teachers try to intervene, tempers flare and curses fly.
"If I'm not standing right there--and even if I am right there--parents double-park, park on the opposite side of the street and send their kids running across," said Principal Sandra McGuern of Cantara Street School in Reseda, who called in the video team this month as a last resort. "This morning I had this one--my mouth was agape. They did not even come to a complete stop. They just slowed down and the kid jumped out."
Drive by almost any school in Southern California minutes before the morning bell and chaos reigns. Parents double park, empty cars are left running at the curb, small children dart between cars to cross the street and harried parents honk their horns.
Officials say traffic hazards outside schools are a growing problem, underscored Tuesday when a crossing guard was struck and killed by a teenage motorist outside a North Hollywood elementary school, after the driver had dropped off his younger brother at nearby Walter Reed Middle School.
"When school starts at 8, 1,000 students converge on one site in a 10-minute window," said Donald Zimring, deputy superintendent of the Las Virgenes Unified School District in Calabasas. "There is nothing you can do to make it good. Parents gladly stand in line for three hours to go on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, but they can't wait six minutes to drop their kid off at school."
Agencies and officials across Los Angeles County were unable to provide statistics on how many students are hit each year near schools.
But at least two children have been hit in the San Fernando Valley so far this school year, according to Officer Norman Kellems of the Los Angeles Police Department's Traffic Safety Unit.
And Robert Yalda, director of transportation and intergovernmental relations for the city of Calabasas, said schools in the Las Virgenes district average half a dozen traffic accidents annually, ranging from fender benders to incidents that injure students.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, car crashes involving child pedestrians are the second-leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 14. Each year, an average of 675 children die from motor vehicle-related pedestrian injuries, and 20,000 more are injured.
Orange County motorists are among the worst offenders in the nation when it comes to driving irresponsibly in school zones, according to a survey released last month by the National Safe Kids Campaign, an advocacy group.
The study found that while 65% of motorists nationwide drive 5 mph over the posted speed limit in school zones, 87% in Orange County speed near schools.
The principal of a Santa Ana school called police Wednesday after more than a dozen drivers ignored the crossing guard and zoomed through the crosswalk as children were headed across the street.
"They just speed through when there's people in the crosswalk, even though there's the crossing guard with a yellow jacket and a huge red stop sign," said Kathy Roe, principal of Rosita Elementary School.
But Wednesday, the crossing guard was able to jot down license plate numbers of the 14 speeding cars.
In the city of Los Angeles, small neighborhood elementary schools were built 50 years ago to teach one-half to one-third the number of students now enrolled. Portable classrooms sit on what were once school parking lots.
Many older schools are surrounded by narrow residential streets that were simply not built to handle large volumes of traffic, and ever-larger SUVs and mini-vans.
"They were thinking of small, local community schools," said Principal Susan Fein of Bassett Street School in Reseda. "They were not thinking these would become multi-track, year-round schools."
Society has changed, too. Thirty years ago, according to researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more than two-thirds of American children walked to school. Today, fewer than 10% do so.