Multiple instances of students being hurt or killed by motorists driving near school bus stops or illegally passing school buses have made the national media, prompting a return to best practices and safety efforts long championed by the industry.
On Oct. 29, four siblings were struck by an illegal passer in Rochester, Indiana. Three of them—6-year-old twins and their 9-year-old stepsister—died, and another student was hospitalized with injuries. The next day, a 9-year-old Indiana boy crossing to his bus was hit by a pickup truck and died. On Nov. 1, a Pennsylvania student was found dead at his bus stop by his school bus driver; police determined it was a hit-and-run case. The same day, two adults and five students who were waiting at a Florida bus stop were hit by a car, resulting in injuries.
A Recurring Problem
The Kansas Department of Education recently released its 48th annual National School Bus Loading and Unloading Survey, which found six students were killed in the loading/unloading zone during the entire 2017-2018 school year.
Every year, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services conducts a one-day count of illegal school bus passing incidents throughout the U.S. This year, school bus drivers in 38 states participated and recorded 83,944 incidents during that one-day count. NASPDTS extrapolated that as many as 15 million vehicles could be illegally passing school buses and their students each 180-day school year.
“Solutions are varied across states,” stated NASDPTS President Michael LaRocco. Possible solutions he listed were public service announcements by districts or law enforcement, as well as other aggressive public information campaigns, adding lighting to the bus and installing stop-arm cameras to record illegal passers. “There are a multitude of options out there,” he said. “There’s not one silver bullet out there, other than the simplest silver bullet—motorists need to pay attention to what’s going on around them.”
Vehicles are weapons, he stressed. “If they’re not operated properly, (they) will kill kids,” he added. “We need to look at the idea of doing more instruction at a public level with the motorists. … We can do (driver and student) training forever and a day, but we can’t stop a motorist that’s not paying attention.”
Driver distraction is real and getting even worse with the proliferation of increased cell phone usage, reflected Anna Borges, California state director of pupil transportation. “It’s all choices that we make,” she said.
The federal government has gotten involved, with the National Highway Traffic Administration's Deputy Administrator Heidi King urging motorists to abide by state illegal school bus passing laws. A petition that was started on Oct. 31 is also being circulated. It urges the federal government to “keep our children safe by instituting severe penalties on (people) who choose to violate the red lights on a bus such as 30 days in jail, 90 day (driver’s license) suspension, 12 points on license and a mandatory minimum fine of $5000.00 for the first offense.” As of this report, it has close to 4,000 signatures out of the 100,000 it is seeking.
Training for Drivers and Students
There is no lack of best practice procedures that deal with school bus stop safety and have already been distributed throughout the industry. The 2015 National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures manual, produced by the National Congress on School Transportation, instructs that each state should develop procedures on how bus drivers should signal students to safely cross a road. Meanwhile, school districts should train their students on the proper and safe way to cross. Whether boarding or disembarking from the bus, students should be trained to watch for the driver’s signal, check the traffic, and approach or leave the bus from a distance of at least 10 feet away. California extends this distance to 12 feet, and New York uses 15 feet.
“I would recommend ‘I see you, you see me’ distance at minimum; a distance where the driver can see the feet of all the children would be the best distance,” added LaRocco.
Dick Fischer, a former California school district transportation director and current owner of Transportation Consultant Group, posited that student distraction is as big a problem as motorist distraction. He advised that students who are not properly paying attention to traffic before crossing the road or, even worse, being on their phones while crossing, should be addressed in district policy. Others have commented to STN that students are also distracted by wearing earbuds or headphones.
School bus driver training, predictably, covers crossing procedures in-depth. In an updated training released this month, the School Bus Safety Company stated that the most dangerous part of the “Danger Zone” for students, the 10-foot area around the entire school bus at stops, is when they are crossing the street. They advise that students should walk to the edge of a crossing gate, if one is installed on the bus, or 10 feet straight out in front of the bus, then check traffic and wait for the driver’s signal to cross. But rather than immediately heading across the road, the students should walk to the edge of the bumper and stop again, while checking for traffic. Then they can finish crossing the street.
“If you allow students to cross incorrectly, you are endorsing a very unsafe behavior,” the training cautions drivers. “The next time, a car might ignore your signals and try to pass you. That could easily end in tragedy.”
“When (drivers) get distracted, (they) can affect people’s lives and the way the industry is headed,” Borges stated, referring to legislation like the Paul Lee Law that resulted from a student’s death aboard a hot bus that the school bus driver did not check for students following a route.
The NCST manual also recommends continuing education for students on proper school bus stop behavior. Ned Einstein, an expert witness and editorial advisor to School Transportation News, noted a 1968 Swedish study that confirmed students above 10 years of age have the ability to cross streets properly and can bear some accountability for doing so improperly.
The national specifications manual and SBSC training agree that students should receive continuing education on proper crossing procedures. SBSC advises that drivers review the hand signals with students, so they retain the information better.
State and District Responsibility
Einstein notes that “school bus crossing practices are designed to factor in the likelihood that motorists will ignore the flashers and ‘pass by,’ often striking a student not properly directed across the roadway by the school bus driver.” In a six-part article series written for STN magazine in 2011, he tackled the issue of differences in state crossing procedures, suggesting that they be streamlined to reduce motorist confusion.
The NCST manual also instructs that routes and stops should be planned with regards to visibility, safe student waiting distance from the roadway, proximity to intersections, any adjacent properties, how well motorists can see the stop, and the ability to add warning signage for oncoming traffic. It adds that routes should be periodically reviewed.
A simple solution that each district can immediately implement is to “take a really close look at its operations and make determinations about whether a specific spot is the best location for a bus stop,” LaRocco agreed.
Fischer advised that districts review their routing and set as many right-hand-side bus stops as they can. For the rest, he said, they should either put a crossing guard on the bus or have the driver cross the kids, as has been the requirement in California since the 1930s. Borges confirmed there have been no recorded student crossing deaths in all those years, but one driver was struck by a car and temporarily paralyzed in the 1980s.
Following the Rochester, Indiana tragedy in which the three siblings were killed, the Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation moved the bus stop off State Road 25 and into the adjacent Meiser Park mobile home community, as well as established a committee to review all other bus stops for safety. This change was praised by LaRocco as an effective, immediate improvement. News reports indicated parents had previously yet unsuccessfully petitioned the school district to move the stop off the state road and into the neighborhood.
Inventive School Bus Equipment Solutions
Some, both from within the student transportation field and from without, have identified other trouble spots for which they have provided potential solutions.
Samuel Bollen, a research and design specialist, approached the topic from his areas of expertise. He determined that the lights and signage on the bus were placed too illogically for the human eye to optimally analyze. He presented his case at the 2012 STN EXPO and was invited to do so again at the 2016 NASDPTS annual meeting. Bollen’s suggestions were well-received at both conferences.
LaRocco, also the Indiana state director of pupil transportation, said that Bollen’s findings spurred research on lighting options that will be examined by the state school bus specifications committee. Flashing brake lights were ruled out, since they did not meet FMVSS standards. But adding lights is an option that is currently being reviewed as part of a “comprehensive spec review.”
“Everybody should be open to any type of new technology or any type of new information that may make the motoring public more aware and more cautious, especially when (school buses) are stopped for the purposes of loading and unloading,” Borges said, adding that she would be interested in the results of a pilot study using Bollen’s suggestions.
Last October, Ohio’s largest district, Columbus City Schools, debuted a Type A “safety bus” that is equipped with reflective striping across the back, wash lights along the bus sides, and additional red and amber lights on the front and back. Jeff Vrabel, who at the time was the district’s fleet services division manager, worked with the Ohio State Patrol to initiate the pilot program to increase the bus visibility. He relayed that the driver could not only see the students better, but motorists also stopped further back from bus stops and did not tailgate as much.
One Georgia district has utilized an inventive solution for the last five years. Catoosa County Public Schools created “safety chutes” from traffic cones and bars to set up at all of its unloading zones located at schools. Transportation Manager Jerene Jones shared that the idea was hatched after a neighboring district had a student hit and killed after getting off the bus.
“We wanted the narrow part at the door of the bus, (with students taken) straight out as far as possible before funneling out to left or right,” she explained. The chutes are extremely popular with school administrators and drivers, who “radio in if the chutes are ‘not out,’ and don’t feel comfortable unloading if they are not.” Most students use them the right way as well, and those who do not are quickly corrected.
Several districts have also reported success in decreasing illegal passing through the use of extended stop arms.
How California Does It
One state stands alone in how it handles the issue of illegal passing and the resulting track record of student safety. Since 1932, California has required that school bus drivers walk K-8 students across, whenever they need to cross the roadway. The guidelines also require drivers to verbally tell students to cross, as hand signals could be mistaken for a motorist’s signal to proceed. The driver also shuts off the bus and removes the keys.
Fischer referred back to the annual national bus stop survey produced by the Kansas Department of Education that showed 73 percent of students killed in the loading and unloading zone over the past 48 years were 9 years old or younger. “Would you let your 5- or 6-year old cross the street by themselves?” He asks during trainings. “Is it safer for you to cross the kids or is it safer for you to sit in your seat and wave the kid on?”
He is a firm advocate for other states adopting the California method, and stated his pleasure that it was added as an acceptable option in the 2015 NCST manual.
Additionally, he said, not requiring drivers to cross students may save time or be more comfortable, but it also means they may not take as much care as they should. “If that driver crosses the kids, that driver is going to make damn sure he’s not going to get hit,” he quipped.
Fischer continued that he has served as an expert witness in cases in which districts were sued for a student’s death by a passing motorist. He related that the school bus driver who was in the seat often said that all they wished for was a chance to do it over. “If you don’t have time to do it right, you won’t have time to do it over,” he emphasized.
A common objection to the driver getting out of the bus to see students across the street is that the students left on the bus may get into mischief. However, Borges stressed the training that students are given every school year, and before every activity trip. “They’re all educated, they know to wait,” she said. California school bus drivers also turn off the bus and take the key with them every time they cross students.
Over the years, Fischer and Borges recalled one instance of a child killed when a substitute driver did not know what side of the street he lived on, a parent killed by a passing motorist, and a school bus driver who was injured when she pushed her students to safety, but was hit by an illegal passer. Other than that, the state has not had any crossing fatalities in 86 years.
LaRocco pointed out that the Rochester incident would still have likely resulted in whoever was in the street—whether it was the students, driver or a crossing guard—being hit, because that motorist was not paying attention. Additionally, California only transports about 10 percent of its students, while Indiana transports about 65 percent.
“It’s something that could help, but we have to be really honest in these conversations—are we willing to pay the cost for that from a financial perspective to take these extra steps?” he offered. “We certainly never want to compromise safety for cost.” The result could be that districts would need to take their limitations into consideration and decide on the solutions that will work best for them in their local areas, he added.
The National Conference of State Legislatures counts 16 states that have passed laws to require or allow stop arm cameras on school buses: Alabama, Arkansas, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Indiana’s Rep. Jim Pressel had previously introduced legislation to make it easier to prosecute illegal passers. Following the deaths of the three siblings, he underscored the importance of his bill.
However, others think that technology can harm more than it helps. Fischer said he is not a fan of stop arm cameras. “It’s a money maker—it doesn’t solve a thing except you’ll be able to see the kid get hit with the car.” He also brought up driver navigation tablets that go dark while driving but not at a bus stop, which is an essential place for a driver’s attention to be on the students around the bus.
Drivers should clear their minds and be focused on each stop, LaRocco advised. They should also be empowered to make suggestions to their supervisors on moving bus stops they feel are unsafe.
“(As) scheduling software increasingly selects bus stops, and fewer and fewer live Earthlings ever examine them for safety or any other reason, crossing incidents have become rampant—comprising more than an eighth of all the cases I do,” Einstein noted.