“Child hit near bus stop, family wants something to be done.” “Bus stop safety questioned.” “Cape councilman wants no school bus stop left in the dark.” These recent headlines are sure to draw more attention now that kids are preparing to board yellow buses and head back to school.
This publicity does more than elicit concern, according to some of the newsmakers STN contacted — it also motivates decision makers to take a closer look at children’s safety during their entire trip to and from school, not just when they’re on the bus.
Cape Coral, Fla., Councilman Kevin McGrail has been pushing to get streetlights at every school bus stop in his city since 2011, when four major accidents occurred within the Lee County Public Schools’ jurisdiction during that school year. Three of the children died, while the fourth had a closed-head injury and remains in a wheelchair today, said McGrail. All of the students were hit and killed by motorists at or near their bus stops in the San Carlos community
Two years ago McGrail spearheaded a move to turn on more streetlights when the Lee County district consolidated their bus stops to save money on student transportation. At that time, just 17 percent of bus stops countywide had functioning streetlights, and 28 percent in the city of Cape Coral. When it was all said and done, the latter number rose to 52 percent.
Time may be on his side again, said McGrail, whose ears perked up when he recently heard from state officials that Gov. Rick Scott would be placing a large premium on flight and pedestrian safety in this year’s budget. At a Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting on July 11, he had the chance to sit down with representatives from the Department of Power and Water and the state Transportation Department to explore ways to fund the remaining 48 percent of streetlights needed at these dark bus stops.
“Historically, the state has had a pool of grant money from Safe Routes to School. The state has interpreted that to mean sidewalks, yet the vast majority of our community has no sidewalks, not even on major boulevards. Kids run a safety risk when they walk in the street,” McGrail continued. “If it’s a health, safety and welfare issue, it’s just a matter of getting the grant money.”
Timing Is Everything
McGrail remains optimistic the funding will come through yet acknowledges it may take a few years. He said he is hoping for the initial financial outlay from the City Council, which recently implemented a public service tax on electric utilities to raise money for capital improvements.
“We bit the bullet and raised some tax money, so there is about $1 million available for the streetlights,” he added. “If we can get the state of Florida to recognize it as a ‘Safe Routes’ issue, that grant money can be applied as a solution to that problem.”
Like McGrail, Debbie Moore of Arlington, Texas found her safety initiative gained greater momentum once she found allies like parent activist Sheryl Carroll. They teamed up to draw attention to a dangerous interstate bridge overpass that several dozen high school students must walk across to reach one of the city’s high schools.
Although city officials told her last spring that the city, in conjunction with the state, found that the bridge does need to be widened and a sidewalk and guardrails installed, weeks went by and nothing happened. So, Moore reached out to local news stations and got the publicity she needed.
“I naively thought the district would be so embarrassed by the story that they would immediately provide bus service to these teens until the city and state widen the bridge. To my knowledge, nothing has changed,” she told STN shortly after.
Now, however, change appears to be on the horizon. Moore said that officials from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) were seen on the bridge last week.
When she and Carroll met with an Arlington City Council member and the director of public works and transportation in June, they were told that city funds weren’t available to widen the bridge now. Yet the officials did inform them TxDOT has agreed to re-strip the bridge from four lanes to three, add a walking lane on one side, raise the outside wall and create a barrier between the walking path and the road.
“They stated that TxDOT never responds to an issue this quickly, but that TxDOT had seen the news segment and didn’t want any more publicity. We were told the work would be completed before school resumes on August 26,” stated Moore.
So what was the secret to her success?
“Along with the key component of publicity, I believe tenacity and contacting multiple groups or agencies is required,” Moore said. “And sometimes it is necessary to go around the chain of command and contact another individual within the same agency … It is crucial that one doesn’t give up when one doesn’t receive a positive response.”
In his work as a school-zone safety consultant, Ted Finlayson-Schueler, president of Safety Rules! in Syracuse, N.Y., said he has heard from frustrated parents who are ignored or “stonewalled” by school officials. He emphasized that officials who treat district families this way run the risk of not only student endangerment but also liability if something does go wrong.
As an expert witness, Finlayson-Schueler has been involved in many cases when individuals have appealed to New York’s commissioner of education after failing to get results from their school board. Typically, he said, commissioners consider whether the school district followed “reasonable” steps to ensure students’ safety.
Yet, before going that route, he recommends parents make every effort to establish relationships with local decision makers. For instance, if they think a bus stop is dangerous, they can request data on accidents at that location from the Department of Public Works or law enforcement and then have actual facts to back up their position.
“I suggest they knock on every door they can find and try to make more friends than enemies,” he continued. “Historically, the majority of school districts say the trip to the bus stop is the parents’ responsibility, and yet the facts [indicate] that this is also the more dangerous time during the trip to school … so, if we really want our kids to live to graduate from school, we should be thinking about that.”
Transportation Directors Share
Sometimes a safety hazard isn’t apparent until after a pedestrian accident or near-miss has occurred at a school bus stop. In May, an 8-year-old student from Brunswick County (N.C.) Schools was hit by a truck near his bus stop and sustained injuries including a concussion, bruised lung, and broken collarbone, pelvis and ribs.
The boy had walked across the street with his sister as she boarded her bus, but his bus had still not yet arrived. Afterward, his family blamed the bus driver for not escorting him back to the bus stop, and they were upset when the driver returned to work at the close of the investigation.
Transportation Director Bobby Taylor said the driver was ultimately found not to be at fault. He added that it is difficult to assign blame because there are three sides to the story: the bus driver’s, the student’s and the truck driver’s. At this time, he noted they haven’t found any evidence in support of changing that particular bus stop to a right-hand stop, as opposed to a crossing stop.
“It is safe for elementary kids to cross the road to catch the bus if everyone follows policies and parameters,” said Taylor. “Whether it’s the other motorists, the bus driver or the student, if anyone moves outside the parameters they are supposed to be operating in, then it creates an unsafe environment. We all have to be doing our part.”
He also said his transportation staff has worked with the state Department of Transportation the past three years to identify places in need of “School Bus Stop Ahead” signage.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have them work with us and install 99 percent of the signs we requested,” he remarked. “After we got going, we had several signs installed, and it’s been a blessing.”
Debra A. Royle, who is transportation coordinator at the Grove City Area (Pa.) School District, said signage is not always the solution after an accident or a near-miss at a bus stop. On Jan. 23. an eighth-grade student was boarding the school bus at the end of her driveway when a pickup truck driver slammed into the back of it — jolting the girl and hurting her back. The scare compelled her mother to call for two “Caution: School Bus Stop Ahead” signs placed closer to her home.
Afterward, Royle re-evaluated the bus stop and had her bus contractor, Shaw School Bus Lines, do the same. They found that adequate stopping distance was available and visibility was good due to the high profile of the school bus.
“Unfortunately, at times, it may be driver error on the part of the other vehicle,” Royle concluded. “Any of our incidents that may happen are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and changes may be made due to the safety of the situation.”
Greg Olivia is transportation director at the East Central School District in San Antonio, which made headlines last spring when a “hero” mom leapt in front of her children to protect them from an illegally passing motorist. He said Olivia Saenz, who suffered a few broken bones, initially complained about the “dangerous” road but has since been assured by the department that it was a fluke.
Olivia emphasized that incidents like this are extremely rare because of his department’s doorside-pickup policy. His largely rural school district of 270 square miles has many, many addresses located on state, county and federal highways.
“The bus went a little bit past the address and the mom was walking her two (elementary) children onto the bus — but the car wasn’t paying attention to the flashers,” he recalled.
He noted the policy is for drivers to pick up student riders door-side as close to their house as possible in rural areas. Even if there are two adjacent houses on a run, they will stop at each one to pick up a child.
“We don’t want the child walking along the shoulder of the road,” Olivia said. “We try to make the walk from the residence to the stop as short as possible. But it’s quite common for our drivers to have to slam the door on the child unloading because the traffic didn’t stop and a tractor-trailer is flying by. The drivers have been very conscientious about making sure the child is not stepping off the bus until all traffic is stopped.”