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Back-to-School Safety Lesson for Parents

A TV campaign urges motorists to be careful around campuses. L.A. Unified police say poor driving habits, crowding endanger children.

September 09, 2003|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

For children, back to school means new backpacks, new friends and new teachers.

For grown-ups, it's the same old thing: battling the other moms and dads in the auto derby known as dropping your children off at school.

It can be nasty.

Their own offspring stowed safely in back, drivers cut in front of other people's children in the crosswalks. They drop students off in the middle of the street. They make illegal U-turns.

At Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, where Manifa Zinali takes her sister Ourfa before heading to her job at a North Hollywood beauty salon, students on foot jostle with parents and older students in cars to get across the street and into class.

"They have a driveway to the parking lot, but you're not supposed to go in there," Zinali said.

"So you have to drop your kids off on another street, and have them cross the street where everyone is driving like a maniac and just hope that they don't get hit by cars."

It's gotten so bad in Los Angeles that the school district police have convened a task force to figure out ways to reroute everybody safely -- and get parents to start obeying traffic laws.

Using Milliken Middle School in Sherman Oaks as a test case, the task force has diverted traffic around the school, discovering in the process that part of the problem was an outdated rule that reserved huge amounts of curb space for buses, even though many children are now dropped off by their parents.

In addition, said Lt. Keith Moore of the Los Angeles Unified School District Police Department, the school has changed the way students are released from school.

Now, instead of just coming out the front door or off the schoolyard, children are organized into groups and released from specific exits. This way, parents know where to meet their children, and are not left jockeying with all the other families at a single door or gate.

"Everyone is in a hurry," Moore said, and the result is crowding and poor driving behavior that endangers children and parents alike.

A big part of the problem, he said, is that many elementary and middle schools in Los Angeles were built for about 600 children, most of whom walked there or rode bikes.

Now, the same schools must accommodate up to three times as many children, most of whom arrive in cars. The schools weren't set up to handle the traffic from that many vehicles, which has led to the current mess.

In the 12 months that ended June 30, Los Angeles Unified school police wrote 6,246 tickets for traffic violations at schools, and an additional 7,909 for parking violations, Moore said.

And that doesn't even count tickets issued by the Los Angeles Police Department or agencies that patrol area schools.

Last year, two children were killed at an Anaheim elementary school when a grandmother lost control of her car on the way to pick up her grandchildren.

And 13 students and teachers were injured in a similar incident during school pickup time at a private school in Eagle Rock.

The Santa Ana Unified School District reported that 39 children were struck by cars while walking within a quarter mile of a school during a five-month period in 1999.

Arline Dillman, traffic safety manager for the Automobile Club of Southern California, stood in front of an elementary school recently, watching parents drop off their children.

"There was a four-way stop sign at the corner ... but hardly any of them stopped," Dillman said. "And there were children who were walking to school."

For the first time, the Auto Club this year is augmenting its annual back-to-school driver safety tips with prime-time television commercials aimed at encouraging parents to obey traffic laws around school campuses.

"We're concerned about the safety of the children and also of their parents," Dillman said. "People who are not obeying the traffic signs are creating an enormous safety problem."

In its commercial, the Auto Club takes a lighthearted approach rather than a serious look at accidents in school zones.

With bouncy music meant to remind viewers of the utopian view of family life presented by television shows in the 1950s and '60s, the ad shows one parent blithely zipping around a school bus, and another pulling into a no-parking zone.

At one point, it shows a crossing guard attempting to usher a group of children across the street, only to be thwarted by a parent on a cell phone who drives right in front of them.

"Oh I'm sorry," the crossing guard says. "Don't mind these children. I didn't see you were on the phone."

Mike Parise, senior vice president of Foote, Cone & Belding, the advertising agency that developed the spots, said the idea was to use humor to engage parents in some gentle self-mockery.

Make the ads too preachy, he said, and people won't respond.

"It is a serious subject but we didn't want to make it morbid, or make it too serious," Parise said. "You have to try to hit a nerve or get an insight so people will say, 'Maybe that's me.' "

If you have a question, gripe or story idea about driving in Southern California write to Behind the Wheel c/o Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or send an e-mail to behindthewheel@latimes.com.

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