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Police department's school zone safety program a success


Sidney's school zones are safer for the moment due to stepped up police patrols.

The Sidney Police Department received a grant for $5,000 from the Nebraska Department of Roads in late August to help promote safety in school zones.

"We want to do anything we can to keep kids from getting clipped by cars," said Sidney Police Chief B.J. Wilkinson.

The grant allowed the officers to work exclusively around Sidney schools during their off hours to enforce traffic laws and enhance safety awareness during the beginning of the fall semester. The stepped up patrols took place throughout the month of September.

Sidney police only used about half of the grant money due to time and location constraints. There were many stipulations for use of the state funds. Police could only patrol on grant time for two hours before and after school and only in school zones.

Police believe the patrols had an almost immediate and significant effect. The number of violations diminished rapidly toward the end of the month as those around the schools began to notice the police's daily enforcement presence.

Near the start of the grant Sidney Police were stopping around 10-15 people per day for violations, but were down to 2-3 per day by the end of the period. Police hope that this makes drivers more aware of their surroundings, not just in school zones but everywhere they drive.

Some issues that law enforcement attempted to rectify were parking in no parking zones, parking in bus unloading zones, double and triple parking in the street, parking in crosswalks, failing to yield to pedestrian traffic, passing school buses with lights flashing and speeding in school zones.

Between Sept. 3 and Sept. 30, six officers worked to assist those already on duty in school zones. Police patrolled every school zone in the city and gave out many verbal and written warnings as well as a few citations.

During this time frame police issued 24 verbal warnings for minor infractions, such as parking in a cross walk. Law enforcement issued 130 written warnings for infractions of a less serious nature as well as 30 citations for serious infractions, such as passing a stopped school bus with the stop sign extended or exceeding the speed limit by 10 mph or greater.

Sidney High School Principal Chris Arent thinks that the extra patrols had a big impact on safety around schools.

"I've seen a lot fewer near misses," Arent said.

Students noticed the upped patrol time, Arent added. He even overheard some talking about seatbelt use and slowing down in school zones. Arent thinks the extra police presence coupled with more visible crosswalks made the area surrounding the middle and high schools a much safer environment.

The biggest problem, according to Wilkinson were drivers who were not paying attention. Mothers and fathers on their way to work, with other things on their minds just want to drop off the kids and be on their way. These parents might not be very cognizant of their actions, Wilkinson said. They might be texting or checking email and pulling into traffic without paying attention, he added. The intention of the grant was to cut down on this behavior, and police think it did its job.

"People are more alert everywhere they go," Wilkinson said. "They're more cognizant of foot and bicycle traffic."

The police hope that drivers stay aware and keep up the safe habits even now that extra patrols have ended.

"Our efforts would be to try to keep a presence and make people aware," Wilkinson said.

He thinks a continued presence in school zones will reinforce drivers to remember safer practices.

The added police patrol in conjunction with public service announcements on the radio were the ideas of Sidney Police Lieutenant Keith Andrew. Andrew wrote the grant, organized the buy-back time and coordinated with officers to make sure patrol participation was consistent. Andrew had the idea for new, safer crosswalk patterns and locations as well as alternative parking and drop off locations at some of the schools. This helped to ease heavy traffic concerns during busy drop off and pick up times.

The grant time is over now, but police will still patrol in the school zones as part of their regular duty assignments, to ensure that those who learned safer practices during the grant time keep up this behavior to the benefit of all those traveling through school zones.

"They've been very helpful," said North Elementary School Principal Belinda Westfall.

The police helped with changes in the drop off locations at North Elementary and encouraged the kids to cross in the crosswalks, Westfall said.

The stepped up patrols have even influenced Westfall's teenage son to be safer in school zones as well.

"I've definitely seen that this has been beneficial," Westfall said.


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