Traffic unit targets school zones

Elias C. Arnold
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 10, 2007 12:00 AM

Peter Wong's shoulders drooped slightly and he rubbed his forehead this week as a traffic officer explained his ticket for speeding in a school zone.

Wong was among those cited Monday when the Gilbert police traffic unit began its two-week emphasis on school-zone enforcement. Schools reopened this week after a two-week holiday break.

Wong slowed to turn into Patterson Elementary on Guadalupe Road east of Lindsay Road, but not enough to get below the 15 mph before entering the school zone, according to police. The husband of a teacher and father of children at the school said he usually watches his speed closely, but his words fell on deaf ears.

"We pretty much have a zero-tolerance in school zones," Sgt. Scott Girardin said after he ticketed Wong, who was suspected of traveling 6 mph over the limit.

The special enforcement detail is routine as school starts each semester, and officers have found anything from a man still intoxicated after a night of drinking to a school bus driver speeding with a full load of children.

Fines for traffic violations, such as speeding, overtaking another vehicle or failing to stop at an occupied crosswalk, are doubled in school zones, under a state law that took effect in September.

Suspected violators must go before a municipal judge. Fines can reach beyond $900 depending on the circumstances, said David Phares, presiding judge for Gilbert Municipal Court.

Fines for speeding in other areas is $165 for up to 10 mph over the posted limit, and $240 for traveling between 11 and 20 mph over the limit.

Sandy Shahbazian, an instructional aide at Islands Elementary School and second-year crossing guard, recalls an incident last fall when a driver, after nearly running her over, said she thought that Shahbazian's stop sign was meant for someone else.

"I'm holding a stop sign and there are kids crossing. What do you think it means?" Shahbazian asked rhetorically Monday outside the school.

Girardin, who supervises Gilbert's six-person day traffic unit, said police get the most complaints about drivers near Islands and Power Ranch elementary schools because of a watchful staff.

They are hardly trouble spots, though, with most schools facing the same issues, such as drivers passing each other in school zones or speeding through the zones when there is little traffic to force them to slow down, Girardin said.

Passing is probably least understood and can be as simple as overtaking a vehicle in another lane, said Officer David Morehouse, as he patrolled Elliot Road near Gilbert Elementary School.

The school bus driver he once cited for going about 10 mph over the limit was irritated by the ticket, but Morehouse, a traffic officer for more than six years, was far more concerned about promoting safety.

"I'm not there to make them happy."