The school bus in the middle of the busy Post Road-Kings Highway was not there by accident. The big yellow vehicle carried a message for drivers: "School's Open, Drive Carefully."
Even though the first days of classes in Fairfield for the new academic year is Aug. 29, Fairfield police are already taking steps to remind drivers about their plans to strictly enforce traffic rules regarding school buses and student pedestrians once schools reopen.
The effort is being led by the Police Department's Traffic Safety Unit, comprising four officers, a sergeant and led by Lt. Jim Perez. It was established two years ago with a mission of addressing complaints from the public about issues like speeding, illegal parking, texting and talking on the phone while driving, and road rage, according to Perez.
The unit's larger focus, according to Perez, is on "the three E's:" engineering, education and enforcement.
"With regard to engineering, we work with the town and state officials on how roads are designed and signs are placed," said Perez. "Education is about speaking with the community and bringing awareness about the dangers of certain driving actions.
"With enforcement, we try to give warnings before ticketing. In the case of a parking situation in the neighborhood adjacent to Roger Sherman Elementary School, parents were sent a Friday e-blast about certain parking rules," he said. "The following week, offenders were issued infractions. It stopped the problem and there have been no complaints from nearby homeowners in two years."
Perez said local police "partner up with the AAA in education classes, talk to kids, solve problems by thinking creatively" about driving and traffic issues.
As schools reopen later this month, the traffic unit's work becomes particularly critical, Perez said. "Many parents are concerned about their kids walking alone to bus stops," he said. "We want to be hyper-vigilant about drivers being patient and to make sure they watch for kids darting out."
A recent safety measure is the outfitting of school buses with external video systems that can record the license plate numbers of drivers who pass buses stopped to pick up or drop off students. The consequence for violating the state law the prohibits driving by a stopped school bus is a $465 fine for the first offense and double that amount for a second-time offender.
Officer Jason Kline, a member of the Traffic Safety Unit, suggested that traffic violations often occur because drivers are self-absorbed and not paying attention. "Their world ... everyone else is living in it," he said. "You always have to be prepared for the unexpected and some people are often stuck in their own fog. We want to make people aware we are out there, and especially watching the residential areas where there's little coverage."
Kline noted that the back-to-school period marks a sudden transition for many drivers. "The population jumps up, traffic increases at the start of school," he said. "It takes about a week for people to adapt. People are still operating in summer mode."
Fellow Officer Evan Kaesmann added, "Whether stop signs are out or not, people still need to be cautious around buses. Kids can be excited. Drivers need to have added consciousness. All of that is diluted by cellphones, texting and other distractions."