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School is Back, So Are Safety Challenges

Last month, school startup kicked into high gear. It can be a stressful time for school transportation professionals as many issues and challenges can occur. For example, in Louisville, Kentucky, the school transportation department struggled to get students to and from school on time, causing such disarray that the school district postponed classes for the first week to get things fixed. Many national media outlets reported that the school bus driver shortage and inefficient routing were major factors behind this “disaster.” I can only assume compromises were made by the district when implementing the new routing software, but things went downhill quickly.

Another disturbing story I read was about a Pre-K student in Florida dropped off at the wrong school bus stop. She was found wandering the streets by a Good Samaritan who helped the little girl get back home. But that story could have had a tragic ending.

“Safety is talked about all the time, but very few leaders and drivers know what safety means, or what to do to operate safely. Training, training and training is the only way to indoctrinate a safety culture,” explained Jeff Cassell, president of The School Bus Safety Company. Last month, my two daughters started the new school year, and they were excited about going back to class and seeing their elementary school friends. But as a parent I need to be sure they get to school safely. We walk to school as our district doesn’t offer general education school busing. Yet walking can be more dangerous for students in many cases.

So how do we improve safety on and around the school bus? I recommend starting with the parents as they have a vested interest in their child’s safety. The burden of school bus safety can’t fall solely on school transportation and the school bus driver. A survey conducted last summer by AAA reveals that many drivers admit to risky behaviors like speeding and using their handheld mobile phone while driving through school zones. Out of 5,000 survey respondents from a dozen states, about 50 percent of drivers reported that they commute or take a regular driving route through a school zone.

This time of year is particularly dangerous due to the combination of young inexperienced drivers, and pedestrians and bicyclists who will all share the road in the early morning and late afternoon hours. The AAA survey found 10 to 20 percent of respondents, depending on the state, said they often or sometimes (deliberately or not) drive around a school bus while its red lights are flashing. Frankly, I expected these numbers to be even higher.

Traveling to and from school on the school bus is by far the safest mode of transportation for students. However, over the past 10 years, an average of six children per year were killed in the loading and unloading zone around the school bus, according to the Kansas State Department of Education’s National School Bus Loading and Unloading Survey.

Meanwhile, according to the one-day illegal passing survey conducted by NASDPTS, about 94,581 school bus drivers in 33 states, representing one-quarter of all school bus drivers nationwide, reported 62,482 vehicles passed their buses illegally on a single day during the 2022-2023 school year. The number of one-day illegal passing incidents climbs to over 242,000 when adjusted for 100 percent of the school bus drivers in the U.S.

“Projected across a 180-day school year, these sample results point to more than 43.5 million violations per year among America’s motoring public,” NASDPTS added. “We realize that school zones and bus stops can be a risky and dangerous place for children and that’s why the AAA School’s Open Drive Carefully awareness campaign was created,” said Stephanie Milani, Tennessee public affairs director for AAA. “Our goal is to educate and remind drivers of the need to curb unsafe driving behaviors, slow down and stay alert in areas where children may be present.”

School buses have been rolling for a month or two in most places, and the topic of safety remains top of mind. School Bus Safety Week is next month. I recommend you create a plan to engage your parents, school administrators and the community to get the message out. As an industry we need to spearhead actionable recommendations so we can prevent many of these tragedies. Being perfect all the time is a heavy burden school transportation professionals shoulder every day. But saving a child’s life is well worth the effort. I wish you a safe and successful school year!

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the September 2023 issue of School Transportation News.

Related: (STN Podcast E175) High Standards: The #1 Top Transportation Team + Safety Tech for Illegal Passing
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