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Objects Are Closer Than They Appear in Bus Danger Zone

In fact, children can seemingly vanish in broad daylight from the view of bus drivers, despite state and federal regulations designed to eliminate the threat of injury in the Danger Zone.

It is an area that extends approximately 10 feet from the school bus on all sides. It has proven to be the last treacherous piece of real estate students traverse before reaching the safety of the school bus, and the first hazard they encounter after leaving that sanctuary. It’s a place where students have fallen prey to errant, distracted drivers passing the bus while it is loading or unloading students. Some students have also been killed by their own bus, because they became lost in one of several blind spots where their driver lost track of them.

The area is a virtual no man’s land for students, and it is appropriately called the “Danger Zone.”

And despite the number of student fatalities occurring there being at an all-time low, some student transportation safety experts say there is still much more that can be done to increase the safety of children as the load and unload school buses.

Annual figures released by the Kansas State Department of Education’s in its School Bus Loading and Unloading survey indicate that for the past two years the number of reported deaths of students in the Danger Zone is at four.

“If we have one child killed in the danger zone, it’s one child too many,” said Jeff Cassell, president of the School Bus Safety Company and a former safety director for Laidlaw. “Only zero is acceptable. (Four a year) is a good reduction, but if you’re the parent of one of the four who were killed, those statistics don’t mean much. Obviously, we’re going in the right direction.”

State participation in the survey is voluntary, so that number could be higher. There is no readily available way of knowing. A more elusive statistic in the number of non-fatal injuries that occur in the danger zone. “We only deal with fatalities and I only get what they send to me,” commented Wilma Crabtree, senior assistant for the Kansas Department of Education. “It would be too difficult to gather that information since we have a tough time getting (states) to send us information on the fatalities.”

Dick Fischer, owner and president of Trans-Consult, an international transportation consultancy, said the drop in the number of fatalities also includes “pure luck.”

“I’m not saying the drivers are not doing a good job,” he added. “Five-, 6- and 7-year-olds are the most common victims. Once those kids get in motion, they are in motion. If they drop something, they are going to pick it up.”

And that’s precisely when tragedy can strike. Fischer added that when bus drivers are accustomed to seeing a child cross the street every day, if there is a break in their concentration, they sometimes assume the child has crossed the street even when the child hasn’t.

Mirrors and FMVSS 111

Safety experts offered a series of steps that, when applied in unison, could have a profound impact on the situation. They range from more closely following existing federal safety regulations, to better education for everyone involved, to better administrative oversight and support.

Fischer pointed out that from January to the end of March, three children were killed crossing the street and another seven were struck by cars. He said often the reason children are killed by the bus in the Danger Zone is because the mirror system is not set according to FMVSS 111, which gives specific directions on how school bus mirrors should be adjusted to give the bus driver the optimum 360-degree view of the exterior of the bus, up to a minimum of 12 feet.

Fischer said many drivers improperly use the convex mirrors at the front of the bus to see traffic to the rear or to see if the red lights are on in front of the bus, rather than looking for kids in danger zone.

“About 95 percent of the mirrors are out of adjustment and fail to meet the FMVSS 111,” Fischer said. “When the buses leave the factory, the mirrors are not set according to FMVSS 111, so the mirrors must be set for each driver when they arrive at the bus yard.”

Fischer said the mirrors should be adjusted when the driver’s seat is at its lowest point to ensure they comply with the federal rule.

However, Victoria DeCarlo, a bus driver in the Lake Shore Central School District in Angola, New York, is not convinced that FMVSS 111 is the panacea that some think it is. While DeCarlo agreed with Fischer’s estimate that about 95 percent of bus mirrors nationwide may be noncompliant, DeCarlo said her district’s driver training this year revealed that a bus’ mirrors can follow FVMSSS 111 and still have blind spots. 

She said a child can disappear from the driver’s view and still technically be within the Danger Zone. Life-size mannequins were used with a mirror grid in Lake Shore’s training exercise. Drivers were shocked at how easily a child can be overlooked. Some were visibly shaken. 

“A one-inch mirror bracket hid a mannequin placed under the mirror,” DeCarlo said. “Another was placed a foot away from the front bumper and it was out of sight. We were told the mirrors were adjusted properly. It was shocking. There needs to be better overall training for drivers, and it should be mandated.”

DeCarlo added that bus drivers should be trained with mirror grid but she cautioned that it’s the way the grid is used that counts. DeCarlo manages a Facebook page called “From the Bus Driver’s Seat,” on which she posts news articles concerning school bus safety and driver behavior. She wrote a LinkedIn article in March titled, “Hidden in Plain Sight.” The article contained photos of her school district’s mirror grid test with mannequins placed in various blind spots around buses.

 “The mirror grid is not good enough unless you use the mannequins and props so drivers can see their blind spots, she said. “A trainer can ask if they are seeing the props. When you see your disadvantages, you can rock (lean forward or backward to see into blind spots) before you roll (drive away). People were shocked when they were shown their blind spots. There should be a mirror grid station in every bus depot.”

DeCarlo also found that during incidents of a student being hit or dragged by the bus, the color of a child’s clothing caused the child to blend in with the pavement or a bus door. This, DeCarlo saw this first hand during on her ownstudies using the conventional school bus with a hood, instead of the transit-style bus with the flat nose and a rear engine.

“Conventionals are the most dangerous because they have a deeper, darker stairwell and the design hinders the driver’s field of vision,” DeCarlo said. “The most recent student draggings and deaths occurred with this type of bus.”

DeCarlo said school districts opt for the conventional bus because it is the least expensive but the transit style bus offers a better field of vision to the drive. “All in all, it ends with driver training and proper mirror adjustment,” she said.

Cassell likes the mirrors but said that putting one’s faith entirely in the mirrors may not be the best answer. He said education is the key. “You already have crossover mirrors and side mirrors,” he said. “You can’t look at every mirror at the same moment in time.”

Cassell suggested that bus drivers “count the kids away” from the bus and make sure they’re accounted for before driving away. “Make sure you know where those kids are,” Cassell said. “If the number is more than seven, don’t pull away as quick. Double check your mirrors and, if there is a doubt, get off the bus and look around.”

Cassell offers school districts a free DVD-based training program. He began giving the program away when the fatality count jumped from five in 2008 to 17 in 2009. He has distributed about 5,000 copies to date. “I’d like to think our actions helped the deaths from 17 to four, but we will never know,” Cassell said. “That’s one heck of a reduction.”

California and Chapter 10 

Driving behavior around a school bus and rules for loading and unloading students are covered in Chapter 10 of driver training manuals around the country. California’s manual also includes a provision that requires bus drivers to get out of the bus and escort children in grades 1 through 8 across the street at bus stops.

Fischer pointed out that in the past 45 years, 1,229 students have been killed in the danger zone nationwide. Of those fatalities, Fischer said only three happened in California. “My recommendation is that every state should adopt California’s rule of escorting kids across the street,” Fischer said. “If that procedure were followed nationwide, we would have 1,229 children playing today.”

Cassell agreed. He said 119 children were killed in the Danger Zone during the past 12 years and California accounted for one death. Meanwhile, Georgia has had 19, Texas, 10; North Carolina eight, Florida seven, and Indiana and Pennsylvania totaling six each. He said the telling statistic is that California counts 38 million residents within its borders while Georgia has a population of 9.6 million. 

Cassell continued saying that 53 of the 119 deaths occurred while the children were crossing the street. “That should be our greatest focus,” he said. “We must learn from our mistakes and create programs and take action to prevent these mistakes from happening again.”

The Buck Stops Where?

Who is ultimately responsible for making sure the Danger Zone becomes less hazardous? Everybody.

“Making sure the mirrors are in compliance is up to each supervisor, driver, trainer and each system,” Fischer said. “You must do it in-house.”

Fischer said buses are brought in for periodic inspections and suggested that the person performing the inspection may check the mirrors, but will overlook checking the mirror settings. He said that if the inspector checks off the mirrors without checking the settings, then the inspector is just as negligent as the driver should an incident occur.

Cassell said it is everybody’s responsibility to teach students safe behavior around the school bus, but that might be the crux of the problem to begin with. “When something is everybody’s responsibility, it is nobody’s responsibility,” Cassell said. “They all assume the others are doing it.

“As we studied the child fatalities in the past 12 years, in almost every case, had the child acted safely, the tragedy would have been avoided.”

DeCarlo agreed that training is the key and praised her district’s support for her efforts. She said driver shortages put pressure on supervisors to fast-track undertrained drivers. Scheduling demands also can cause drivers to hurry on their routes and make careless mistakes. In the end, the industry must be more tolerant.

“No kid should die on the way to their entitled education,” DeCarlo said. “We are a business and we should not be killing our clients.”

Reprinted from the May 2017 issue of School Transportation News magazine.

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