3 Counties to Hike Traffic Penalties for School Zones

Times Staff Writer

Motorists caught speeding, rolling through stop signs or driving erratically near public schools will soon have to pay much stiffer fines in three California counties, including Ventura.

Under a law that took effect with the new year, supervisors in Santa Barbara, Alameda and Ventura counties can implement programs to double traffic fines in school zones. The extra money is to be used to hire more crossing guards.

But the law's real purpose is to send a strong message to motorists while reducing the number of students injured or killed as they walk to and from school, said Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), who sponsored the bill.

"It's designed to make people drive more carefully in school areas, realizing you have young children who aren't as appreciative of the consequences of darting across the street," Jackson said.

The higher fines will be imposed as soon as counties post informational signs around campuses, Jackson said.

Traffic safety is an issue that affects schools across the state and the nation. In Ventura County, the rate of injury and death among young pedestrians and bicyclists is particularly high, Jackson said. The same is true for Santa Barbara County.

Ventura County ranks eighth out of 58 counties in California for traffic injuries involving children younger than 15, and Santa Barbara County ranks 11th, according to a recent state study.

Just last month, a fourth-grader riding his bike to school in Santa Barbara County's Montecito was hit and seriously injured by a car pulling out of the school parking lot.

"The state is saying we really mean business when it comes to driving safely, especially in school areas," Jackson said.

Alameda County in the Bay Area will also hike fines under the new law, which expires in 2009.

Until then, the California Highway Patrol will gather statistics on fines imposed and the number of accidents. The information will be used to determine whether the trial program should be instituted statewide, Jackson said.

Fines for traffic violations in school zones vary, said Sgt. Patti Salas, who investigates traffic incidents for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department in Thousand Oaks. They can run as high as $400, which is the penalty imposed for failing to stop for a school bus, she said.

In Thousand Oaks, officers patrol campuses in the early morning and in the afternoon, and the most common citation is for speeding, Salas said. Increased fines would slow motorists down, she said, as long as warning signs were posted.

"It's extremely effective," Salas said. "If one person gets stopped and they get fined double for speeding, I can assure you they are going to slow down next time."

Details about how the law will be implemented and which schools will be affected are still being worked out in each county, Jackson said.

Trudy Arriaga, superintendent of the Ventura Unified School District, said she welcomes the higher fines. Traffic is a major issue for many campuses, she said, particularly those lacking parking lots, such as Sheridan Way Elementary School on the city's west side.

And any extra money for crossing guards would help, Arriaga said. At a handful of schools without crossing guards, parents have voluntarily taken on the responsibility, which is not legal.

"I think it's pretty obvious," Arriaga said of the new law. "If there is ever a place we want people to drive safely, it's around our schools."

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