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Technology Coupled with Training Improves ‘Danger Zone’ Safety

In January, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took time away from his presidential primary run to sign into law a bill that requires motion sensors on the front and back of all school buses. 

The purpose of the New Jersey motion sensors is to detect the presence of students or other pedestrians at bus stops and to avoid child fatalities, like that of toddler Abigail Kuberiet, who wandered in front of her brother’s school bus and was struck when the driver didn’t know she was there.

The bill was originally filed in 2004, a year after Abigail’s death, but until recently, legislators admitted technology was unable to ensure the sensors worked correctly, meaning that they detected actual humans and not birds, dirt, snow, other vehicles or anything else non-human that can set off a false alarm. 

That was exactly the experience five Iowa school districts had a couple of years ago when piloting motion sensors. The school districts found the sensors needed almost daily adjustment to work properly. 

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Department of Education is working with the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission on regulations to be proposed to the State Board of Education over the next couple of months that outline the implementation process of Abigail’s Law. 

“Once the regulations are proposed, we will make sure that schools districts and school bus providers have the pertinent information regarding the regulations,” a spokesman at the New Jersey DOE added.

Jeff Cassell, president of School Bus Safety Company, said the real need is continued driver training to protect the danger zone for students, especially the youngest. His analysis of the National School Bus Loading and Unloading Survey, produced each year by the Kansas State Department of Education and cross referenced with the National Center for Education Statistics, shows that students under 7 years old die at the bus stop at least three-and-a-half times more than older kids. For this reason, Cassell continues to offer his danger zones training free of charge to school districts nationwide. So far, he said he’s given away more than 1,000 copies. 

“If I can help to save the life of just one child in America, I’ll be over the moon,” he said.

Cassell said he also champions crossing gates, the equipment installed on the front bumper of the bus to force students to walks farther in front of the bus when crossing so the driver can see them. While crossing gates are an optional specification in most states, he said he believes that the rise in their use over the past decade, especially,  has resulted in a reduction in the number of students struck and killed at the front of the school bus, and a drop from an average of 12.5 students killed each year at bus stops to the current average of 9.5 students.

School Bus Safety Company also offers a free PSA video that educates motorists on school bus stop laws. Cassel’s analysis also found that 49.5 percent of the 115 student fatalities over the past 10 years occurred while crossing the street and being hit by a motorist who either ignored the school bus stop arm and flashing ambers, were distracted or didn’t know they were supposed to stop in the first place.

As such, he said he doesn’t believe stop arm enforcement programs will work in changing motorists’ behavior around school bus stops. Others disagree. Kris Hafezizadeh, director of transportation at Austin ISD in Texas, said stop-arm video programs, like the one his district began in January, “promote the culture of safety for everyone to stop for school buses.”

It appears to be making an impact, as local media reported that more than 1,000 citations had been issued through March.

Meanwhile, the New York Association for Pupil Transportation has been pushing legislators in Albany to pass a bill allowing districts to use stop-arm video cameras to convict motorists of breaking the law.

“This is all about enforcement,” said NYAPT Executive Director Peter Mannella. “Motorists need to know that we are able to ticket them for putting our children at risk. This is a safety risk…high stakes risk with our kids’ lives hanging in the balance. We adults need to step up and do right. Cameras help our drivers do their jobs but taking that pressure off them to ID violators.”

He recognized the importance of educating motorists of state law on school bus stops, adding that since last fall NYAPT has been issuing monthly press releases that share data from the illegal passing count day conducted voluntarily by school districts each month. When applied to all 50,000 school buses statewide, NYAPT estimates that 25,250 passing incidents occur each day, 562 of which could occur on the right, passenger-loading side of the bus.

“The media covers the issue very well, and we find that people know about the issue when we talk with them about it. This needs national attention, and we have suggested to our colleagues at NHTSA that they play a role in that education process both through their own messaging but also through the 50 state highway safety offices in the use of their safety funding,” Mannella said. “We also believe that NHTSA and the U.S. Education Department can send messages to the public in ways that we cannot as an industry.”

Fannin County Public Schools in Georgia is one of many districts in the state to use stop-arm cameras to enforce traffic laws. Denver Foster, foreman of the transportation fleet, said that 24/7 Zeus Systems consist of eight cameras mounted in the bus interior and three on the exterior capture and store images of violations. The video is submitted to the district’s school resource officers, who are also sheriff’s deputies to confirm violations take place and issue citations.

But Fannin doesn’t stop there. Since 2006, the district has used the same LED lights throughout the bus fleet, both as supplemental lights to the eight-way warning lights and advising motorists not to illegally pass. In 2009, Foster said the district piloted smaller, rectangular LED lights from UltraLED that are mounted on the rear of the bus above the bumper and at the front of the bus on the grille. Foster added the lights have been more effective in grabbing motorists’ attention because the warnings are at their eye level. 

“(These LEDs have) come me with rave reviews from our community, public safety officers and state Inspectors,” he said. “It is my understanding several states have adopted similar technologies, and these supplemental lighting systems are now being offered as packages from LED manufacturers.” 

Humble ISD north of Houston has been using the auxiliary bumper lights on all 269 of its buses since last summer and has reduced the number of rear-end crashes to two from a dozen last school year, said Mark Swackhamer, the district’s assistant director. The light flashes in five different patterns when the bus driver applies the brakes and essentially serves as a third brake light. 

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