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Police Put the Brakes on YoungJaywalkers

Safety: The rising number of accidents near schools has L.A. officers writing up students on pedestrian and bicycle violations.

June 15, 2002|CAITLIN LIU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alarmed by a rise in pedestrian and bicycle accidents involving children, Los Angeles school police have issued hundreds of tickets in the last few months to students as young as 9.

The crackdown targets children near schools who jaywalk, dart through traffic on bicycles or ride without helmets. The citations require children and their parents to attend a Saturday pedestrian traffic school or, for repeat offenders, to pay fines of as much as $80.

Some of the most dangerous moments in children's lives occur when they are traveling to and from school, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In Los Angeles, traffic accidents involving child pedestrians jumped 23% last year to 919 incidents, from 746 in 2000, according to Los Angeles Police Department figures. In 2001, 15 child pedestrians were killed, compared with nine the year before.

Also in 2001, bicyclists under the age of 18 were involved in 379 traffic collisions, up 49% from the year before, according to the LAPD. One child bicyclist was killed last year; there were no fatalities the year before.

The crackdown is led by Los Angeles Unified School District police, who just a few years ago issued only a handful of citations to youth pedestrians. Until now, the department has focused primarily on ticketing drivers when they speed, double-park or make illegal stops near schools.

But targeting drivers dealt with only part of the problem, said Tana Ball, director of the school police's pedestrian and bicyclist safety program. So officers are now on the lookout for pedestrian and bike violators as well.

Even though it may help save lives, the get-tough effort has left some teenagers fuming. In Woodland Hills recently, Taft High School seniors Melissa Barker and Joanna Lord sauntered mid-block across Winnetka Avenue en route to the campus. They had barely reached the curb when an officer strode over to them. Minutes later, the teenagers had identical citations fluttering from their hands.

"Puh-leeze," said Barker, rolling her eyes as the officer left to cite more students. "We jaywalk every day," but are always careful to look before crossing, Barker said. "[Police] should have better things to do with their time."

Police and school officials counter that tougher enforcement makes children think twice about breaking traffic safety laws.

Jaywalking used to be "a horrible problem" at Taft, said Principal Myra Fullerton. But since police stepped up patrols, more students have been using crosswalks, she said.

Guilmer Mancia, 16, is one of them. "I used to jaywalk ... but then I stopped," she said. "I was afraid they would give me a ticket." Sometimes, the parents are more annoyed than the children who receive tickets.

Across from Parkman Middle School near Warner Center, Natalie Nasimova of Encino didn't hide her displeasure when an officer handed her daughter a ticket. "I don't understand why you stopped my child!" she shouted.

Though Helen, 13, was in a crosswalk, the officer said she walked in front of a car that was already driving through the intersection.

"This is not fair--she didn't do anything wrong," Nasimova said, at first refusing to let her daughter provide the officer with any identifying information.

"Arrest me! Take me to jail!" the mother shouted, as the daughter sobbed. Nasimova eventually relented.

Police officers said they've heard it all from unhappy parents, from profanity to comments such as, "Why don't you go get some doughnuts?"

Other parents are more supportive of the effort.

"They should do this at all the schools," said Cathleen Fager, a Sherman Oaks stay-at-home mom who was waiting to pick up a child from school.

Officials said that many parents and students aren't aware of how hazardous the roads in front of schools can be.

One of the most dangerous transportation zones for children is right in front of a school, according to the traffic safety agency. In Los Angeles, where many students live too far away from the schools they attend to walk, more parents drive their children, choking the streets around campuses with traffic.

Students who are dropped off can face greater dangers than those who walk from home, officers said. The ones whose parents stop across the street sometimes bolt straight from the car to campus without using a crosswalk.

The crackdown is occurring citywide, using school district police as well as LAPD and Los Angeles Department of Transportation officers.

Most officers issue tickets to children over the age of 9 or 10. The youngest pupils are given impromptu sidewalk lectures on pedestrian safety tips.

"They don't realize we're doing this for their own good," said LAPD Officer Tim Olsen, after a Woodland Hills high school student, with a citation in hand, stomped away.

"I would much rather a kid get a ticket than get scraped off a street, get hit by a car," he said.

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