The new state law requiring school bus drivers to flash warning lights at every stop and motorists to halt is having an unexpected side effect.
Parents and school officials say it is causing traffic jams of major proportions at some campuses.
At University Park Elementary School in Irvine, traffic was so heavy that the school banished parents from the parking lot.
School buses now pull into the lot rather than stop on the street to drop off and pick up students. And parents who drive their children to school must let them out near campus, a method that some residents say is causing traffic to back up into the neighborhoods.
"It's an accident waiting to happen," said Becky Guess, whose 11-year-old son attends University Park. "There are cars lined up along both sides of the street where there clearly are signs that say 'No Parking.' Kids are rushing across the busy street to meet their parents, and there is no crosswalk for them at that area."
Craig Ritter, principal of University Park, said there are no easy solutions.
"It's a difficult situation, but I'm hoping to get input from parents and other concerned individuals," he said. "We're appealing to people to be patient, and we're attempting to get them to carpool. We are just trying to muddle through and make this work for everyone."
The Thomas Edward Lanni School Bus Safety Act of 1997, which took effect in January, was named after a Laguna Niguel 7-year-old who was killed by a truck after stepping off a school bus in 1994. The aim of the legislation, which followed a three-year crusade by the boy's parents, is to ensure the safety of children entering and exiting school buses.
Since the first of the year, Principal Barbara Kaprilian at Arroyo Elementary School near Tustin has found herself directing traffic to keep cars moving.
"I now know that when I retire, I can be a crossing guard," Kaprilian said, laughing. "But the traffic situation is a serious problem. . . . We have begun closing our lot to parents, which does create an incredible amount of traffic."
Parents and administrators say the situation would improve with a bit of planning by parents.
"The biggest problem is that 90% of parents wait until the very last second to get their kids to school, which is the primary reason for the traffic jams," Kaprilian said. "I try to encourage parents to allow as much extra time as they can in the mornings . . . as well as making sure their kids already have their lunch money and that their homework is finished. It's basically common sense."
Lita Robinow, who has two children at Irvine's University Park, said, "The problem in a nutshell is that people don't want to be inconvenienced by having to get out of their cars. If you're in your curlers and slippers, you probably don't want to get out of the car and walk your kid to class."
Her solution: "You just regroup."
Jeri South, driver instructor for bus operators in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, said parents' impatience is a big part of the problem.
"Buses are not sitting there for any longer than a few seconds," she said. "But people get really upset if they have to wait in traffic for any longer than they are used to. It goes along with the road rage problem. If parents would give themselves more time in the mornings, they wouldn't run into as much traffic."
South said she has been amazed to hear that many parents have been among those cited by police for not stopping for buses that are flashing their lights.
"They are so used to just passing on by the buses without paying attention," she said. "And that is scary."
Fortunately, it seems that most parents are willing to work with us and look at possible solutions to the traffic issue."
South, who got occasional complaints before the law took effect, said she now gets half a dozen a day. She tells every caller the same thing: "Please give us some time, and try to be patient. We're working on it."
Doug Snyder, president of the California Assn. of School Transportation Officials, said the situation is not likely to change unless school transportation funding increases.
"School districts are running bare-bones transportation programs," Snyder said. "If state legislators were to fund school transportation programs adequately, the problems wouldn't be as severe. School buses are the safest form of transportation around. We could pick up more students and take away some of the traffic gridlock if the transportation funding was there."
In the meantime, principals and other school officials recommend that parents do what they can to adjust their schedules so they don't arrive at the schools when traffic is heaviest.
"Fortunately, most parents are willing to work with us and look at possible solutions," South said.
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School Zone Tips
A new law forbidding motorists from passing school buses picking up or dropping off students is causing traffic tie-ups on some campuses. School officials offer these suggestions to deal with the congestion:
* Be patient.
* Leave home a few minutes earlier.
* Organize a neighborhood carpool.
* Take alternative routes or side streets that bypass the busiest campus traffic areas.
* Avoid streets where you know school buses will be making stops.
* Meet with school officials and parent groups to brainstorm solutions.