Recent Fatalities Put Spotlight on School Bus Safety

| November 19, 2018

VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – Issues surrounding school bus safety have come to the forefront of a national conversation following a series of fatal incidents that recently occurred.

It began on Tuesday, October 30, when three children were killed and another injured while crossing the street to their bus stop in rural Indiana. The following day a child was struck and killed in rural Mississippi as he crossed the road to board his school bus, while a second child was hit and injured while crossing to a bus stop in Florida.

On Thursday, November 1, a seven-year-old boy was found dead on the side of the road after being run over while waiting for his bus in central Pennsylvania. Another five children and two adults were injured after a car struck them at a school bus stop in Tampa, Florida, on that same day.

While these incidents are both tragic and shocking, they are, unfortunately, becoming all too common.

During this year’s Operation Safe Stop – an annual school bus enforcement and education initiative that was held on October 24 – participating school districts and law enforcement agencies reported 147 violations of the law, an increase from the 120 reported last year. Convictions for breaking the School Bus Stopping Law also increased from 730 in 2016 to 747 in 2017.

These disturbing increases have both law enforcement and school officials looking for ways to increase school bus safety, as well as raise awareness of the laws for sharing the road with school buses.

Several schools in the Venango County area, including Cranberry Area School District and Franklin School District, recently participated in PennDOT’s Operation Safe Stop program, which is a public awareness and enforcement effort to educate the motoring public that passing a stopped school bus when children are loading or unloading is both dangerous and illegal.

Each year, through Operation Safe Stop, law enforcement agencies, school transportation providers, pupil transportation associations, and PennDOT have combined their efforts to raise public awareness about the potential consequences and reduce the occurrence of illegal school bus passes.

According to Trooper Michelle McGee, Community Services Officer for Pennsylvania State Police Troop E, troopers were assigned to travel with buses in both the Franklin Area School District and the Cranberry Area School District as part of the Operation Safe Stop program on October 24.

“The schools provided the routes that they thought had the most infractions. On that morning, one of the troopers did make a stop on a vehicle that passed a bus on Pittsburgh Road when it had its lights flashing,” said Trooper McGee.

“Although the concern is there every day, Operation Safe Stop is a good program to make the public aware of the importance to adhering to the law. Really, we want drivers to have that awareness every day. It’s not just about enforcement, it’s about safety for the students.”

Chief Kevin Anundson, of the City of Franklin Police Department, noted that Franklin Police Officers also took part in the Operation Safe Stop effort.

“We picked certain stops that we were asked to keep an eye on and had a cruiser in the area,” said Anundson.

“We do that periodically anyway, and also sometimes follow buses through town just to make sure people are being safe around them. One issue we see is people not stopping for the buses. It happens a lot more than it should because really it should never happen, but I think it also happens a lot more than people realize”

According to PennDOT, Pennsylvania’s School Bus Stopping Law requires motorists to stop at least 10 feet away from school buses that have their red lights flashing and stop arm extended. Motorists must stop when they are behind the bus, meeting the bus or approaching an intersection where a bus is stopped. Motorists following or traveling alongside a school bus must also stop until the red lights have stopped flashing, the stop arm is withdrawn, and all children have reached safety. If physical barriers such as grassy medians, guide rails or concrete median barriers separate oncoming traffic from the bus, motorists in the opposing lanes may proceed without stopping.

The penalties for disobeying the law are a $250 fine, five points on your driving record, and a 60-day license suspension.

While the penalties for drivers who break the law are severe, the problem seems to be persistent, and local school districts have also taken note and are continuing to focus on the things they can do to help keep students safe.

According to Cranberry Area School District Transportation Secretary Chelsey Ritchey, officials at the Cranberry Area Schools are aware of some “problematic areas” along U.S. 322, State Route 255, and Riverside Drive, and have tried to create bus routes that minimize risks for students.

“We try to make sure students done have to cross in front of the bus,” explained Ritchey.

Kevin Close, Transportation Director for Franklin School District, said that authorities at Franklin also try to set up most of their bus routes so that most bus stops are “door side” pick up and drop off, though that isn’t feasible for absolutely every stop.

“There are no guarantees because I think school transportation is organized chaos to a certain point, but I think our contractors and drivers do a very good job. We all have the kids’ best interest in mind and safety as a top concern,” Close said.

Close also noted that in the Franklin area, there was a traffic stop completed by a Franklin-based State Police trooper during the Operation Safe Stop program.

“One person was cited, and that is a pretty hefty thing for a first offense,” Close said.

“It’s really more of an awareness thing, I think. A lot of people don’t seem to know when they should or should not stop. My best advice is, if you’re not sure, just stop.”

Close has also been speaking with Steve Gardner, a former school bus mechanic who designed and now markets the Gardian Angel School Bus Safety Lighting System, which is designed to combat stop arm violations by lighting a six to eight foot wide path with a field of vision from 18 to 20 feet away from the bus, providing visibility and alerting traffic that students are crossing. The system also includes an exterior camera to photograph cars who pass the bus when the stop-arm is deployed.

“Right now, we’re trying to see if this is approved through the bus code,” Close said.

“I got the information about the system to the state police and PennDOT, and they sent it to their legal departments to see if it meets the code. If it doesn’t, I’m going to seek legislative help.”

While devices like the Guardian Angel can help, distracted driving, aggressive driving, and driver awareness are all issues that can contribute to accidents, no amount of technology can mitigate the decisions a driver makes on the road.

Distracted drivers appear to be the main concern of officials.

Jill Harry, PennDOT District 1 Interim Press Secretary, noted that driver awareness is one of the main reasons PennDOT tries to spread the word through programs like Operation Safe Stop.

“I think sometimes people get in a hurry and they just don’t think about the fact that someone’s child is getting on or off that bus, and they should think of it, and think of it as if it were their own child.”

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Category: Local News, News, Schools