As parents and students alike gear up to go back to school and as they each prepare to get back into the routine of early mornings, one of the most important things to start preparing for is the early morning drive, especially being aware of school zones and school zone enforcement.

“Part of an officer’s daily routine, unless they’re en route to a call, is if they see an infraction, be it speeding or whatever, they will make a routine traffic stop,” said Sgt. Don Cobb of the Fort Smith Police Department.

According to Sgt. Cobb, the city participates in a program sponsored by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). The program provides funds to pay for law enforcement agencies across the country to allow officers in an “overtime” capacity to participate in extra patrols, looking for major highway safety violations.

Speed enforcement is one of the program's highlights, along with seat belt enforcement and, in recent years, distracted driving.

“We have specific officers here who particularly work toward speed enforcement,” said Cobb. “We call it Daytime Traffic, and during daylight hours, officers are specifically paid through a grant from the federal government to go out and enforce speed laws and seatbelt laws.”

While the auto industry has tried to steadily improve automobile safety, one of the key dangers, according to the NHTSA, of speeding is the loss of reaction time to the driver. Advancements in automotive technology, such as anti-lock brakes, have improved a driver’s ability to stop, but that same technology has also made many drivers overconfident in their ability to stop suddenly, according to the Insurance Research Council.

Such a scenario can have tragic consequences, particularly when considering the increase of pedestrian traffic in roadways within school zones throughout the city.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a problem, and I would say it’s because our officers pretty much stay on top of it,” said Sgt. Cobb of school zone enforcement. “One of the most visible ways we can protect the children of Fort Smith is by enforcing speed laws within school zones.”

According to the NHTSA, an average of 5,000 pedestrians die each year in motor vehicle-pedestrian accidents, and an estimated 28,000 suffer injury. Along with parents and children in the crosswalks, there’s also the other vehicles on the road, and because of the increased pedestrian traffic, the car in front of you can stop at a moment’s notice.

“It is not uncommon, when school starts back, for officers to sit in those school zones in the morning, number one, as a deterrent, and number two, to take action,” said Cobb. “If you are caught speeding in a school zone, it is actually a stricter fine and infraction than if you’re caught speeding on some other section of road.”

Cities and states across the country have enacted higher fines and penalties for school zone infractions. In Washington, a 23 percent decline in collisions within school zones has been noted since state legislation enacted in 1997.

“If I bust you for speeding on Rogers Avenue, that is a traffic citation,” said Cobb. “But if I bust you for speeding on Waldron next to Bonneville Elementary, that is a criminal citation.”

Arkansas is one of the many states increasing penalties for such traffic violations as speeding and distracted driving. Along with pedestrians, Cobb noted motorists also need to be aware that some kids will be on bicycles, skateboards and hoverboards.

“Nobody wants a child to get hurt,” said Cobb. “The best way a parent can deal with that is, if you’re able to walk your child to school, especially if they’re crossing a busy street or if you can’t park immediately adjacent to a school to let your child out, then go with your child. Children are children, and they’re not always as observant as they need to be. So, it’s up to us, as the adults, as the motorists, to look out for them.”

“Those yellow lights on the school zone signs are there for a reason,” added Cobb.