The region's law enforcement agencies are poised to pay extra attention to areas near school buildings during the first month of school, looking for speeding motorists in school zones and other violations.

In last year's "Back to School" law enforcement campaign, officers issued tickets to more than 5,527 motorists during the four-week intensive program, which was launched in 1990. This year's campaign begins Sept. 6 and ends Sept. 24.

Capt. John Gowin, operations commander of the Takoma Park Police Department, which is coordinating this year's program, said impatient drivers who speed through school zones have made the issue the "single-most dangerous" traffic concern facing the region's children. "It's a regional problem," he said. The crackdown is sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

In Montgomery County alone, more than 2,600 tickets were issued last year to motorists violating school zone speed limits, and in Fairfax County, about 1,300 tickets were issued for the same offense. Fairfax police officers issued more than 100 tickets to drivers caught passing school bus stop signs, the highest number of any county.

In the four-week period last year, the District's police officers issued more than 500 tickets to motorists speeding in school zones and 10 tickets to drivers who sped past school bus stop signs.

Meanwhile, officers in Alexandria issued 167 tickets to motorists speeding in school zones and eight tickets to drivers who zipped past stopped school buses. In Loudoun County, 106 tickets were issued to motorists caught speeding and three tickets were issued for to drivers who passed a stopped bus.

And, in Arlington County, 77 tickets were issued to drivers found speeding in school zones, eight for passing school bus stop signs.

Overall, the number of citations issued decreased, from 6,718 in 1997 to 5,527 in 1999. Citations in Loudoun and the District increased, and numbers in nearly all the other counties declined.

The program draws support from most of the region's law enforcement agencies and Maryland and Virginia state police departments. Although most agencies won't deploy extra officers to school neighborhoods during the peak morning and afternoon hours, many will advise officers to pay more attention to traffic patterns.

Many motorists caught speeding past school buses have forgotten that school is back in session, officials said. Others are simply "in a hurry . . . not paying attention," Gowin said.

"It's not that we're deploying more officers, it's that they're more specifically looking for people, and we write them tickets," said Derek Baliles, spokesman for the Montgomery County police department. "We take it seriously instead of [issuing a] warning."

In Virginia, Fairfax officials have already identified key locations where patrol officers and school crossing guards said drivers regularly speed.

Based on need, many of the county's police stations will deploy officers from the station selective enforcement units, "floaters" who move between various beats, said Lt. Dennis O'Neil, head of the traffic division's motorcycle section.