Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Back-to-school warning: Drivers be cautious

Increased patrols, cameras and steep fines welcome in place as classes resume

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Motorists driving through school zones better put their cell phones down and pay attention. County police are adding more patrol officers, along with speed enforcement cameras, in school areas to catch drivers who are exceeding the posted speed limits.

The beefed-up police patrols are being put in place for the first few weeks of the school year, said Montgomery County Police spokeswoman Lucille Baur. They will be working in tandem with new police vans equipped with speed cameras to crack down in school zones.

‘‘Not stopping for a school bus with its red lights flashing is a serious offense,” said Baur. So serious that the General Assembly this year has provided more than $500,000 in grants to fund additional police patrols.

Motorists caught failing to stop for a school bus with flashing red lights will receive three points on their license and a newly upped $570 fine, Baur said.

There’s more.

‘‘We definitely will have our patrol officers for the first 30 days of school, increasing enforcement not only for speeding, but for all traffic violations in school zones,” she said. Speed citations issued with the help of the cameras will net violators a $40 fine.

Drivers caught speeding in a school zone by a patrol officer could face a fine of up to $1,000 and five points on their licenses, Baur said.

Caught on camera

The General Assembly approved speed enforcement cameras last year in residential and school areas with speed limits of 35 mph or less, and this summer the cities of Rockville and Gaithersburg piloted mobile vans with the cameras in select school zones.

Findings convinced police to continue.

In just one week, July 31-Aug. 6, Gaithersburg Police issued 656 citations to speeding motorists caught by four speed cameras, Chief John A. King said during a recent City Council meeting.

A speeder must be driving more than 10 miles over the 35 mph speed limit to be captured on camera, police said; from there, police decide whether to issue a citation.

County police have six mobile vans with speed cameras surveying areas near elementary and high schools in Rockville, Gaithersburg, Silver Spring, Potomac, Germantown, Montgomery Village and Poolesville.

School crossing guard JoAnn Andre advised parents dropping off children to park lawfully — not on the crosswalk — and to unload all children on the right-hand side of the car, regardless whether a minivan has doors on both sides.

Sgt. Rudy Wagner, Gaithersburg police spokesman, took a news crew to a camera van outside Watkins Mill Elementary School on Watkins Mill Road in Montgomery Village in the early afternoon on July 31.

‘‘The operator was taking photographs of violators at one a minute,” he said. Outside Gaithersburg High School on Route 355 at lunch time, Wagner said, ‘‘We have a lot of problems with teenagers there crossing against the pedestrian cross signal. ... Wherever you have a high school you have that issue.”

The county’s first fixed speed camera is now at the intersection of Randolph and Bluhill roads in Wheaton, just steps from Wheaton High School and the Wheaton⁄Glenmont Pool.

Of the 24 school locations surveyed this summer, that intersection was ‘‘the worst,” county police said.

Cameras working round-the-clock from May 2 to Aug. 15 captured an average of 49 offenses per hour at the intersection, police data show.

They also had an effect as the average number of speeding citations issued there per hour declined from 60 in May to 56 in June and 46 in July

Gaithersburg’s first fixed camera is expected to be installed along Watkins Mill Road this month, city police said.

Another should soon follow on Girard Street, near Gaithersburg Middle School.

Last year, Montgomery County Police investigated 17 pedestrian deaths, a statistic no one wants to repeat.