Let’s say Congress passes recently reintroduced legislation that targets the illegal passing of school buses, incidents that have officially killed 68 students and injured dozens of others since 2010. What might be the potential effect?
The bipartisan Stop for School Buses, or STOP, Act, which returns to Congress for potential inclusion in President Joe Biden’s controversial infrastructure proposal, aims to launch a public awareness campaign on illegal passing and a federal review of state laws and enforcement levels. The U.S. Department of Transportation would also review current safety technologies and driver education materials being used, and it would issue best-practices on the most effective approaches.
First, it’s generally a good thing when the federal government is talking about school buses. It’s important to note that nowhere in the STOP Act are funds appropriated to help school districts add technology to school buses. Still, excuse those in the industry who respond with, “Leave us alone.” Decades of unfunded mandates at the state level are apt to make one a bit cranky, especially when despite reactionary moves made by legislators and regulators school busing across North America remains the safest mode of travel for students, not to mention the largest regular mass transit service there is.
School busing results in about a dozen total students on average who are killed each year, half of those children dying at bus stops. They are all precious lives lost, but the tragic numbers are also unbelievably small. That’s not to say school busing can’t be made even safer.
As noted this month, LEDs are making school bus signage brighter and more easily readable by motorists who are coming up on student stops. As evidenced by the estimated 17 million illegal passing incidents that occur each school year, according to the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, the flashing red lights and federally mandated stop arm are obviously not enough to grab attention. The jury is still out, however, on exactly how many motorists know how or choose to read these signs.
But adding better lighting to school buses as well as other innovations that predict illegal passing while warning drivers and students only address half of the equation. Since 2015, according to the National School Bus Loading and Unloading Survey, 10 of the 28 students’ deaths at stops were the result of being hit by the bus. School Transportation News research of national headlines uncovered at least five student pedestrians who were killed during the 2019-2020 school year.
Advances in driver vision hold much promise to addressing these tragic yet avoidable fatalities and injuries. For much too long, improper mirror adjustment by school bus drivers has increased blind spots around the so-called “Danger Zone.” In fact, as industry consultant Richard Fischer repeatedly points out, many school buses arrive from the manufacturing plant out of compliance with visibility requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 111.
But the human eye though remarkable has its limitations. Smithsonian Magazine noted in October 2015 that our eyes only perceive the color bands of red, green and blue. The article specifically looked at the ability of hyperspectral imagery to detect if otherwise fine-looking food has spoiled. The point is that a picture can be worth a thousand words. As demonstrated on this month’s cover, pedestrian detection systems are available and in one form or another have been for years. School bus drivers should have no excuse for missing students. But then again, they too often overlook sleeping students at the end of runs.
The obstacles that remain are twofold: Complacency and lack of money. So local fleets are left once again to their own devices. Could their precious dollars be better spent on training and retaining existing drivers and staff? Concerns about what approved transportation budgets will look like next school year only exacerbates the issue.
School bus safety comes down to instilling a culture that does not accept literal or figurative cutting of corners. Unless earmarked specifically for student transportation funding, no amount of federal money—not to mention studying of state laws or reviewing existing technology—will fix systemic skipping over safety steps, especially as school busing seems poised to return to near-regular frequency and student capacity. The power for true change and realizing zero student injuries and fatalities lies with the experts in student transportation services.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the May 2021 issue of School Transportation News