My wife Lisa witnessed something shocking while driving last month. “Why are cars driving past the school bus with the stop arm extended and lights flashing?” she asked. Lisa stopped her car and obeyed the law like she was supposed to, but because she did so, other drivers expressed anger by honking and aiming rude hand gestures at her. It made her feel uncomfortable as numerous cars dangerously swerved around her and with disregard for the school bus and the disembarking children. To make matters worse a police car drove by, too.
I shared with Lisa that California law requires you remain stopped if the red lights on the school bus are flashing. If you fail to stop, you may be fined up to $1,000 and your driving privilege could be suspended for one year. But is this really being enforced by the police? In this case, it wasn’t.
What’s the disconnect between drivers, law enforcement and the rules of the road while driving around school buses? In my opinion, confusion and lack of awareness of the laws is the issue. Plus, drivers seem to always be in a hurry and unaware of their surroundings.
Jeff Cassell, president of The School Bus Safety Company, shared that over the past five years, 28 students were killed in the danger zone, an average of almost six per year. Of these fatalities, 65 percent occurred while crossing the street.
This dangerous behavior around school buses is getting exponentially worse. The results of the 2022 National Illegal Passing Survey conducted by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NAS-DPTS) were released last month. The survey estimates 41.8 million illegal passing violations occur during a 180-day school year.
I did a double-take when I saw those results. The survey conducted in 2019, the last such exercise since the COVID-19 pandemic, extrapolated 17 million illegal passing violations. This year’s results are nearly 2.5 times more than previously reported. The potential for tragedy around the school bus seems highly likely based on the volume of offenses we are seeing nationwide.
According to the survey results, California leads the country in the number of vehicles that pass stopped school buses while children are loading and unloading followed by Texas and Florida. Some 34 states participated, so we are missing some data points from big states like New York. (Separately, the New York Association for Pupil Transportation estimates 50,000 illegal passes occur per school day.)
Patrick McManamon, president of NASDPTS and a highway safety specialist with the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, added that the number of illegal passings of stopped school buses is at an “epidemic level.” He said that the safety of the nation’s children is put into question because some motorists are either not paying attention or are in a hurry. “This is simply unacceptable,” he continued. “Motorists must understand the rules of the road and must follow them every single day.”
Based on the reported data, a majority of illegal passings took place either in the evening, (26,712) or the morning (24,440) as opposed to mid-day routes. Additionally, motorists typically passed from the front (63 percent) and passed on the left (97 percent).
I know many school districts and private contractor fleets that are taking a proactive approach to investing in safety technology. Are you considering doing the same?I’d recommend upgrading your school bus lighting for improved visibility especially in low light early morning and evening routes, especially with Daylight Savings Times ending next month. Other potential solutions are extended stop-arm technology to make sure passing cars stop like they are supposed to, active visual and audible alerts of oncoming vehicles, and illegal passing video enforcement technology, if it’s authorized in your state. Plus, refreshing school bus drivers on safe behaviors and norms is a must.
It’s our responsibility as an industry to raise awareness about illegal passing around school buses. I suggest contacting local media outlets and sharing the 2022 NASDPTS Illegal Passing Survey results. I invite you to share the stories on the STN website at stnonline.com, to validate your points and get the attention of your community.
Be sure to engage your parent and school administration to spread the word about safe behaviors around the school bus. We need to take matters into our own hands and sound the alarm because no one else is going to do it for us.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the October 2022 issue of School Transportation News.
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