With this week's start of the 2014-15 school year in Harford County, law enforcement and school officials, as well as state transportation officials, are urging drivers to be cautious around school buses, bus stops and students walking to school.
Yellow school buses could be seen along Harford roads for the first day of school Monday, and representatives of the county's three municipal police departments emphasized the laws requiring drivers to stop near a stopped school bus with red flashing lights, whether they are behind or in front of the bus, as children get off and on.
"The area 10 feet around a school bus is where children are in the most danger of being hit," Bel Air Police Chief Leo Matrangola said in an email. "Drivers should stop their cars far enough from the bus to allow children the necessary space to safely enter and exit the bus."
Matrangola noted drivers who do not stop for a bus with "alternating flashing red lights" face a $570 fine and three points on their license.
Lt. Fred Budnick, spokesman for the Aberdeen Police Department, encourages drivers to "avoid anything that distracts your driving," such as talking or texting on a mobile phone.
Drivers risk getting a ticket for either offense, he explained.
Budnick also stressed drivers should look for the flashing lights on stopped school buses.
"We do get complaints about people not yielding to the school buses," he said.
Pfc. Jeff Gilpin, spokesman for the Havre de Grace Police Department, notes that many children walk to schools in his city and that students at Havre de Grace High School must navigate a campus divided by streets.
He reiterated that drivers traveling in either direction must stop when they see a stopped school bus.
He said school resource officers will follow a bus along a route where the police have received complaints about drivers not yielding.
"We'll be out there watching, from time to time, as well," Gilpin said.
Charlie Taibi, director of Transportation for Harford County Public Schools, said drivers should keep "a safe distance from buses" and be patient.
"Plan ahead for any travel during times that buses are picking up or dropping off students," Taibi said through HCPS Manager of Communications Jillian Lader. "It is not safe to pass a bus at any time, and doing so poses a real threat to student safety."
Police also urge drivers to be careful around students walking to and from school.
"Our drivers [in Havre de Grace] do a very good job of paying attention," Gilpin said.
He said drivers must follow state laws regarding crosswalks.
"Motorists are to come to a complete stop when they approach a crosswalk that has a pedestrian inside of it, and they cannot continue moving forward until all pedestrians are out of the crosswalk," he explained.
Budnick also urges drivers to pay attention to crossing guards.
"They're there to help ensure the safety of the children crossing some of the streets here in Aberdeen going to school," he said.
Matrangola said police encourage parents "to practice walking to school with their children."
"Wait for the crossing guard to give you directions," he stated. "Parents should emphasize the use of sidewalks and crosswalks and before they cross [the] street, stop, look left, right and left again to see if cars are coming."
Taibi said that students walking, and drivers, "should be vigilant in neighborhoods and at school crossings."
Budnick noted many drivers are also heading to work as children are going to school.
"We would just ask people to be aware of their surroundings, drive defensively," he said.
An average of more than 500 schoolchildren are involved in vehicle accidents each year, State Highway Administration officials stated in a recent back to school safety advisory.
SHA engineers spent the summer evaluating school travel zones that are along state roads, and they have worked to improve safety with modifications such as crosswalks, signs and flashing lights.
Tips for safe walking and biking include using marked crosswalks and intersections, wearing bright or reflective clothes, walk your bike across intersections rather than riding it and work with parents to determine the quickest and safest route to school, which has the fewest crossings, according to the news release.
Drivers should set aside more time for their commutes during school hours, watch for lower speed limits around schools, look out for pedestrians and stopped school buses and wear seat belts, according to the SHA.
"Everyone has a role in back-to-school safety," SHA Administrator Melinda Peters states. "As school starts, drivers should expect increased travel time for themselves and school buses and pedestrians, especially young children, on the road. Pedestrians need to be on the lookout for drivers and remember to look both ways before crossing."