On school day mornings and afternoons, you’ll find Greg Kopan on a Near West Side street corner, dressed warmly in two jackets, a neon vest and Green Bay Packers gloves.
Using a lighted stop sign, Kopan guides students from three nearby schools across four busy lanes of Monroe Street and two of Edgewood Avenue.
Like many of Madison’s crossing guards, Kopan also takes in an array of dangerous, distracted behavior from the city’s drivers — and writes them up for tickets when they put children at risk.
Kopan and his fellow crossing guards have referred a lot of tickets lately: Already, the number of citations for not yielding to guards is up 43 percent over last year’s total.
Officials say that’s partly because guards, who help children cross streets at 49 intersections around Madison, are better trained in how to record violations and vehicle information. But they say it’s also because the bad behavior they’re witnessing is getting worse.
Along with those who are texting and talking on cellphones, Kopan said, he has seen drivers working on laptops and putting on makeup.
Patti Knoche, who oversees crossing guards on the western half of the city, has even heard of drivers flossing their teeth and reading the newspaper.
“They are doing everything, in addition to driving,” Knoche said.
In a perfect world, she said, drivers would slow down once they reach school zones and keep an eye out for children. When they see a crossing guard, drivers would stop no less than 10 feet from the crosswalk, and stay stopped from the time a guard enters the intersection until he or she returns to the curb and drops the stop sign.
In the real world, on a recent weekday afternoon, Kopan held up his sign and started leading a young girl across Monroe street. A taxi driver, apparently late to see him, braked hard and came to a stop a few feet from Kopan, who gave the man a stern reminder about school-zone speed limits.
Minutes later, Kopan led a couple of teens across Edgewood Avenue when a woman started rolling through the stop sign to turn onto Monroe. After seeing him, the driver sheepishly backed out of the crosswalk.
Seconds after that, a Subaru turned from Monroe and drove through the crosswalk onto Edgewood, with Kopan still holding up his stop sign for the students.
“Just got a ticket,” he said before reaching into his coat to record the car’s license plate and description.
Guards, who are civilian police employees, received extra training before school began this year on what information they should take down about cars that violate crossing rules. The guards send that information on to their supervisors, who confirm the plate number matches the vehicle description and mail a citation to the driver.
A ticket — “failure to yield to an adult school crossing guard” — will cost you $98.80.
Guards are giving the citations out at more than twice the rate they did in years past — from 141 tickets in 2011 to 284 so far in 2014.
And while that figure may be high, Knoche said, guards still let a lot of bad behavior slide because they can afford to focus their attention only on the most dangerous drivers.
“We’re really just getting the worst of the offenders,” she said. “These numbers could really be far higher.”
Knoche and Kopan had the same advice for drivers: Slow down and stay alert in school zones, and obey the crossing guards’ stop signs.
Kopan pointed out it takes less than 30 seconds for him to get a child safely across Monroe Street — not a huge impact on someone’s daily commute.
“Give us the space we need,” Kopan said. “It’s very little time.”
Data reporter Nick Heynen contributed to this report.