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Monday marks the first day of the 2012-13 school year for Lancaster County public school students and motorists should be prepared for a higher volume of traffic.
More than 70 buses will be on the road early that day, carrying more than 6,000 of the county’s 11,000-plus public school students.
That doesn’t count the number of additional vehicles driven by parents who will accompany first-day students and those who must navigate drop-off loops at the county's 20 school campuses.
The added congestion can catch motorists without school-age children unaware, which is why local law enforcement is urging everyone to slow down and be patient during the Monday morning school commute.
“We want everyone to be hyper-vigilant and on the look out for children,” said Lancaster Police Department Capt. Scott Grant.
That, he said, includes watching out for pedestrians who may or may not have access to crosswalks. Grant said it’s important for drivers, regardless of destination, to expect the unexpected, especially near school zones.
“We encourage everyone to avoid being in a rush and leave a few minutes early to help prevent distractions,” Grant said.
Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile said deputies will patrol school zones more often in the upcoming days to make sure motorists are obeying the posted 25-mph speed limit during the appropriate times.
In Lancaster County, different start times for elementary, middle and high schools makes for three school zone schedules, with reduced speed limits, flashing lights and law enforcement directing traffic.
Some school zones have the hours they are in effect posted on signs in front of the schools. As a general rule, the schedules for observance of weekday school zones are:
In other instances, school zone speed limits are in effect “when lights are flashing.”
Faile said his department provides six off-duty officers paid by the school district at five county schools to direct traffic throughout the school year.
“We try to have an officer at those locations about 45 minutes before school starts and ends and keep them there until the traffic subsides,” Faile said.
However, Faile said a “roving deputy” will be on the road Monday morning to help out when and where he is needed.
The city of Lancaster provides an officer to direct traffic at Lancaster High School.
Sometimes, school zones can overlap, said Bryan Vaughn, safety and transportation director for Lancaster County School District.
That is especially true in five areas in Lancaster County.
In the city limits, Lancaster High School is adjacent to North Elementary School (Woodland Drive and Normandy Road).
In the county, Brooklyn Springs Elementary is next door to South Middle School (Billings Drive off Great Falls Highway).
On the outskirts of Kershaw, back-to-school traffic pits morning commuters from the Kershaw area against traffic bound for Andrew Jackson High and Andrew Jackson Middle schools, both on Kershaw Camden Highway.
Traffic at the intersection of North Rocky River, Pink Plyler and Tabernacle roads in the Buford community can be bumper-to-bumper most school day mornings.
“Buford Middle and Elementary have always been a problem because there are no turning lanes in front of either school and traffic can back up in a hurry,” Faile said. “That’s why we have two deputies directing traffic there in the mornings. And because of the staggered start times, they do overlap.”
Right now, morning commuter traffic in the Panhandle is already compounded by construction at the intersection of Doby’s Bridge Road and Charlotte Highway (U.S. 521) near Indian Land Elementary School.
Vaughn said he expects the stretch of Charlotte Highway between River Road and Doby’s Bridge will be hard to navigate for motorists headed north.
“That’s probably the most congested area,” Vaughn said. “Between three schools with staggered starting times and commuters going to Charlotte on weekday mornings, you just about have one solid time period of heavy traffic.”
Vaughn said his office will reassess school traffic patterns the week of Sept. 3, to see if changes need to be made.
They wait until after Labor Day, he said, because kindergartners and first-graders have staggered class schedules due to assessment tests the first week of the school year. Vaughn said it takes about a three-week cycle to get a good barometer and daily car count on school traffic.
“The best rule of thumb for everybody on Monday is to start your day early,” Vaughn said.
Contact Gregory A. Summers at (803) 283-1156