The Parent Trap


A new state law requiring school bus drivers to flash warning lights at every stop--and motorists to halt--is having an unexpected side effect: traffic jams of major proportions at some campuses.

At University Park Elementary School in Irvine, for instance, traffic became 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. Parents who drive their children to school must let them out near the campus, which is causing traffic to back up into nearby neighborhoods, residents complain.

"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."

The law, which took effect in January, is the Thomas Edward Lanni School Bus Safety Act of 1997. It was named after 7-year-old Thomas Lanni of Laguna Niguel, who died in 1994 after stepping off a school bus and being hit by a truck.

The aim of the legislation, which followed a three-year crusade by the boy's parents, is to ensure the safety of children getting on and off school buses. Before Jan. 1, the flashing lights were activated only when children crossed the street in front of the bus.

Law enforcement officials have already observed that many motorists are unaware of the impact on them--a ticket if they do not stop, unless there is a road divider or a double-double yellow line.

But in creating new ground rules for school traffic, the law also has created a new chore for officials such as Barbara Kaprilian, principal at Arroyo Elementary School near Tustin. Since 1998 began, she has found herself occasionally directing traffic to keep cars moving.

"I now know that when I retire, I can be a crossing guard," she said. "But the traffic situation is a serious problem. . . . We have begun closing our lot to parents, which does create an incredible amount of traffic."

Kaprilian said 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," she 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 University Park, also put part of the blame on fellow parents--for waiting and waiting to drop off their children virtually at the school door. "The problem in a nutshell is that people don't want to be inconvenienced by having to get out of their cars," she said. "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, takes the psychological view as well.

"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."

South said she received only occasional complaint calls before the new law took effect, but 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 probably won't change unless school transportation funding increases to build more parking lots, for instance, or to add school buses. Now, some districts will not provide bus service to students who live within a mile of the campus, so parents often drive them to and from school.

"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."

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