Editor’s note — An original version of this article incorrectly referenced the school district as being in Michigan. The Lincoln Consolidated School District referenced is located in Arkansas. STN regrets this error.
Illegal passing on the left-hand side of the school bus happens all too frequently. However, one Arkansas school district used an especially egregious right-hand side illegal passing incident as a safety reminder for the entire community as well as its staff and students.
Dale Shook, a school bus driver for Lincoln Consolidated School District, located in Washington County, Arkansas, said he is unfortunately familiar with illegal passing incidents, but an incident that occurred on Oct. 16 forever changed his perspective and that of two of his students.
Shook, who has been a school bus driver for almost four years now, was unloading two siblings at their school bus stop on the right-hand side when in his peripheral vision he noticed that a truck approaching from the rear was not stopping. The school bus was stopped parallel to the white line at the far right edge of the road. There was no sidewalk, only gravel for a shoulder.
He recounted that he looked at the girl already standing in her driveway by the mailbox and yelled in an attempt to direct her attention toward the approaching vehicle. Her brother was in the bus stairwell on his way out the loading doors and just steps away from walking into the path of the truck.
“And all I could think to do was grab ahold of him and keep him from moving outside,” Shook said, recalling his instincts taking over.
The truck then passed on the small gravel shoulder in between the right side of the bus and the mailbox.
“We are very fortunate that we did not have a dead child,” Transportation Director Deon Birkes said. “That is what makes us very lucky. How the driver did not hit the sister is a miracle in itself. The third child that usually gets off at that stop, was not there that day or he would have been in the truck’s path.”
Fourteen-year-old Robbie, who Shook pulled from harm’s way by his backpack, presented a handwritten letter of appreciation. That same week, the school board presented Shook with the Above and Beyond Award for the month of November, as well as a plaque from a state legislator. Each month, the district chooses an employee who went above and beyond their job description. Winners receive a plaque from the district as well as a $100 gift card to a local furniture store.
Birkes said Shook is the type of employee who shows up every day ready to work because he cares about the students on his route. Shook added that he enjoys school bus driving because he can get off work at the same time as his own children in addition to caring for the students on his route. He said that the students have become family and he enjoys the various interactions with each child.
When Birkes received the call about the October incident, he said Shook was initially rattled at what had happened. However, Shook still managed to complete the rest of his route safely.
Birkes said he called the students’ mother to inform her of what had happened, and she was immediately thankful. At the time of the incident, Birkes said he didn’t believe the child realized the seriousness of the situation.
“It’s our job as adults to take care of those kiddos and teach them and help them to understand things,” Birkes said.
Illegal Passing as Training
Birkes said this experience will be both a personal learning experience and a teaching moment for years to come. He noted that unfortunately, the district does experience frequent motorists who illegally pass the school bus, though he added that due to school bus video cameras most incidents are captured.
He added that the video camera on the bus during the October incident didn’t get the vehicle’s license plate, but it caught an image of the car. Because Lincoln Consolidated School District is in a small community, Birkes posted the photo on social media and received a response within 24 hours to help him determine the owner of the vehicle.
Birkes spoke with the truck driver who passed the school bus on the right-hand side and said he was extremely remorseful. “But again, as the cop said, it doesn’t matter how sorry you are, you did it. And there’s a consequence for it,” Birkes added.
Currently, all 22 school buses in the Lincoln Consolidated fleet have at least one camera installed on the front windshield that faces forward at the roadway in front, and Birkes said he is working on adding cameras to the outside of the bus as old buses are replaced, where they are able to capture the passing license plate.
“Our law enforcement’s really good around here,” Birkes said. “We’re not going to allow that, as it’s the safety of the kids.” He added the local police contacts the individuals and issues citations if warranted. He noted that if the violation occurs on a state highway, state police will also hand out citations to offending motorists.
Birkes recalled one instance, in which the state police charged the individual with three counts of child endangerment along with two other counts of passing a stopped school bus and reckless driving. “Our law enforcement is going to make a point with people to protect our kiddos,” he said.
He added that he’s very fortunate that the October incident ended in a citation and not an injury or fatality.
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Going forward, Birkes said the incident will serve as a reminder to school bus drivers to always monitor the road, students to look before stepping into the roadway, and motorists in their community to stop for stopped school buses. He added that the incident will also be brought up for years to come during driver training.
“I’ve been a part of a school district that lost a kid in a car accident, and if you’ve never been through it, it’s devastating to a community, especially one that can be avoided, like this,” Birkes recalled, adding that Lincoln is a town of 2,200 people. “That would have been devastating to our community.”
“We feel blessed that it was a learning experience that didn’t cost anybody anything other than a raised heart rate level,” Birkes concluded.