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A New School Year Filled With Safety Challenges

As a parent of a first-grader, the recent headline of a 7-year-old student being hit and killed by an illegally passing vehicle while attempting to board her school bus just east of Abilene, Kansas, hit home for me. Why do these types of danger zone tragedies keep happening? Are people simply driving distracted or driving without concern of the consequences? In this case, it was a young teenage driver who was behind the wheel of the offending vehicle, but the question of exactly why the illegal passing incident happened had yet to be determined at this writing.

Meanwhile, the school transportation industry is celebrating National School Bus Safety Week this month, Oct. 19-23, and the theme is “Red Lights Mean STOP!” It’s an active and evolving public education program and an excellent way for parents, students, teachers, motorists, school administrators, and yes even school bus operators to learn more about school bus safety.

A school year free of student transportation fatalities has always been a goal for our industry, but already that won’t be possible. School bus safety in the danger zone is a persistent problem our industry hasn’t been able to solve, and it can seem at times that it’s getting worse. Plus, with some school bus drivers not driving for nearly eight months, they are going to need to sharpen their skills quickly as their employers restart operations to support in-person classes.

Jeff Cassell, president of The School Bus Safety Company, said the lack of practice equals a loss of proficiency and sharpness for both school bus drivers and children. Then there is the potential that far fewer school buses on the road over this period has introduced complacency and lack of awareness regarding other motorists on the road.

Cassell added that we all can’t forget to do the right things, even with COVID-19 challenges dominating our collective mindset. Don’t get distracted by the outside noise that is new to us. It all comes back to training, driver behavior and best practices.

Recent data shared by the National Safety Council points to a 20-percent jump in motor vehicle deaths during the first six months of 2020. Keep in mind this increase comes despite a 17-percent drop in the number of miles driven between January and June. According to NSC, it estimates the 20-percent increase in the death rate is the highest jump the organization has calculated for a six-month period since 1999.

The good news is that new technology has been developed with industry adoption on the rise. Have you heard of predictive stop-arm technology? If you haven’t, I recommend you do some research. This new solution has been developed to help save lives.

I caught up with Chris Akiyama, vice president of sales for Safe Fleet, to discuss how this new tech is helping school transportation operators improve safety. “We are proactively notifying thousands of students who enter the danger zone every day during the school year. Everyone we speak with agrees this proactive notification solution is critical to help to save lives,” he said.

Other solutions on the rise are stop-arm enforcement camera programs. Currently, 22 states allow for tickets to be issued to drivers who are caught on video illegally passing school bus stops. This is more of a stick approach to changing driver behavior, by penalizing motorists financially, and a longer-term behavior modification strategy to reduce illegal passing. But violations continue to happen. What is the tipping point to make a noticeable impact in our national illegal passing study? Will it take a nationwide adoption of these programs?

Our industry continuously preaches that school bus operators are the safest of all drivers, but I challenge you to consider how to become even safer. Consider new technology and training programs to impact overall student and driver safety. Hopefully in the near future, we will truly see a reduction in illegal passing incidents and lives being saved as a result.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the October issue of School Transportation News.

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