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CALIFORNIA | BEHIND THE WHEEL

It's Back to School -- and to Rush Hours

With fewer children walking or taking buses, congestion from cars has gotten worse at campuses not designed to handle the crush.

August 31, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

It is early on an overcast morning, and school Principal Diane Eatherly and her morning safety crew are bracing for the inevitable. Supervisors with whistles around their necks and radios in hand space themselves along the empty sidewalk that rings the school while Eatherly gazes beyond the campus parking lot to the steady flow of traffic on Anaheim's 9th Street.

The Stoddard Elementary leader checks her watch and smiles, enjoying a final moment of quiet. "Give it another five minutes," she says. "And then the fun will start."

Sure enough, traffic soon begins to slow on 9th as cars slow down to turn into the school. Parents, following arrows painted on the pavement, pull forward to the far end of the lot, stopping at a barrier of plastic poles that sets off the sidewalk.

All runs fine for the first few arrivals. Young students lugging oversized backpacks tumble out of back seats before their chauffeurs make U-turns to exit.

But within minutes, a jam worthy of a SigAlert develops as a line of cars, vans, SUVs and pickups stretches the length of the parking lot.

Bleary-eyed parents lean on steering wheels, clutching cups of coffee. A mother at the front jumps from her car for one last kiss from her son. A horn honks.

The school rush hour has begun. In the coming weeks, similar scenes will play out as millions more students across California return for another school year. Long gone are the days when most students walked or rode a bus. Safety concerns and cuts in transportation budgets mean an ever-increasing number of students arrive at school in family cars.

That leaves safety-conscious school officials to devise drop-off and pickup plans at campuses that largely were not built to handle the daily crush of traffic.

"There are always eyes out here," Eatherly says, watching as her supervisors corral the stream of disembarking students toward the school gate. "Every day, every school has its morning ritual for arrival."

As the number of parents driving kids to school has skyrocketed, the need for such planning has increased dramatically, transportation experts say. Thirty years ago, two-thirds of U.S. students walked to school, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, only 13% walk.

Similarly, a recent study of the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties found that the number of students arriving at school in private cars doubled between 1965 and 1990.

The problem is compounded in a state that ranks last in school-bus use. With no law requiring school districts to provide bus service, only one of every five students rides buses -- far below the national average of about 45%. As a result, principals such as Eatherly must fend for themselves. Programs across the state to deal with the drop-off problem take various approaches.

In recent years, Los Angeles Unified School District police have cracked down on jaywalking, issuing hundreds of tickets to students whose parents drop them off across the street from school. It is also common for school officials to target parents and issue tickets for illegal parking.

Some educators try to manage and limit the flow of traffic onto campus. Several schools in Santa Ana, for example, ask parents to deliver students to street corners a few blocks from school where volunteer escorts meet them.

And in an effort to dissuade parents from clogging drop-off areas as they leave their cars to walk their children to class, other principals in Santa Ana have recruited older students as "valets" who open car doors and accompany younger children.

Across town from Anaheim's Stoddard Elementary, congestion at James Madison Elementary has been so bad that officials decided this year to close the school's horseshoe-shaped driveway.

"We had to do something," said Vice Principal Alisa DeSart. "It was an accident waiting to happen."

Serious accidents are uncommon, but the danger is real. In 2002, two young Orange County girls were killed while waiting to be picked up from school when a car jumped the curb and crushed them.

Statewide, more than 500 students die each year in transportation accidents during typical school rush hours -- most of them while driving themselves or with a parent.

Orange County drivers are among the worst offenders in the nation when it comes to driving irresponsibly in school zones, according to a 2000 survey released by the National Safe Kids Campaign, a child safety advocacy group.

The study found that though 65% of drivers nationwide go 5 mph over the posted speed limit in school zones, 87% of those in Orange County speed near schools.

Within 20 minutes of its start, the rush at Stoddard is over. The school bell sounds, and a pleasant quiet replaces the sound of idling engines. As usual, the drop-off went smoothly -- if slowly.

A few stragglers jump from cars and race to class, and Eatherly heads back to her office.

Until, of course, the cars return at the end of the day.

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