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March 01, 2000  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

How to Put the Brakes on Stop-Arm Runners

New tactics for reducing 'fly-bys,' including video surveillance, flashing headlights and multiple stop arms.

by Steve Hirano, Editor


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In New York state, it’s estimated that 50,000 motorists illegally pass stopped school buses each day. Several thousand of those violations take place in New York City, where motorists seem to have their own set of rules about when to bring their vehicles to a stop. But the incidence of "fly-bys" isn’t limited geographically, culturally or demographically. It’s an equal-opportunity violation that seems to be on the rise in every corner of the United States (and parts of Canada, too), from the sleepiest backwater village to the city that never sleeps. Passing buses on the left — and right — these motorists are unwittingly participating in a national lottery. If they gamble long enough, a child will be killed. It happens every year, more than once. During the 1998-99 school year, it happened five times in the United States. In addition to fatalities, there are injuries and near-misses that don’t make the local news. Often, the only barrier between life and death is an alert bus driver who hastily signals the children back to the sidewalk after a motorist decides that 30 seconds of patience isn’t an acceptable alternative. And the fly-by problem could get worse. Distracted drivers, impatient drivers, rageful drivers — their legion seems to be growing. With cell phones becoming as common as wristwatches, the automobile has become a second office to many people, making the highway more dangerous than ever.

Finding solutions
To combat this problem, school districts and contractors have deployed an array of strategies, including, of course, the annual barrage of public service announcements (PSAs) at the start of the school year. But some school bus operators have gone further. The following article discusses some innovative strategies to prevent fly-bys as well as some traditional, common-sense techniques that continue to be effective.

External video cameras
In North Carolina, several school districts have mounted video cameras on the outside of the bus as well as inside. These exterior cameras are capturing images of motorists running the stop arms of school buses, which has helped to convince law enforcement agencies that a problem exists. "It opened their eyes," says Jeff Smith, transportation director at Onslow County Schools in Jacksonville, N.C. He has cameras mounted next to the driver’s side mirror on three school buses. Smith says the state highway patrol was skeptical of the district’s high incidence of fly-bys, until they saw the videotape. "They thought the numbers were inflated," Smith says. "When I came up with the videotape, they said, ‘Whew, we didn’t know these things were actually happening.’" The videotape generated by the cameras has been used to help seal convictions of offending motorists. "Once I get the videotape, I view it to make sure that it’s an actual violation," he says. "Then I turn it over to the highway patrol." From there, the highway patrol contacts the perpetrator. "Most of the time they get a conviction without even going to court," Smith says. Typically, the motorists plead guilty to a lesser offense. "Once they see what we have on the video, most of the time they cop a plea." Smith says the district has an excellent working relationship with the state highway patrol, which has been essential in making best use of the videotape evidence. "We would never have gotten the convictions if we didn’t have their support," he says. Smith’s district, along with school systems in Pender County and New Hanover, were chosen by North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction to participate in a federally funded project to combat stop-arm violations. Smith says the honor was somewhat dubious. "We had the highest percentage of stop-arm violations in the state," he says. The cameras, which cost about $1,000 each, were mounted on the buses about a year ago. Interest in the cameras, which are manufactured by Silent Witness in Surrey, British Columbia, has spread across the state. "I’ve gotten several calls from other counties who want information on how to mount the cameras," Smith says. "They also want to know how I’m using them." Smith says the influence on the number of stop-arm violations is minimal, with only three camera-equipped buses in a fleet of 224. What he does to reduce the number of fly-bys is work with the local media. "We’ve done a lot of p.r. work, including some ads on TV, to get the word out to the public," he says. "It’s helped a lot to reduce the number of violations." The campaign against stop-arm violations has also spread to the school district’s Website (www.onslowschools.ncfreedom.net). Smith says he worked with a technically adept bus driver to create various transportation-related Web pages, including one that spells out stop-arm rules and regulations. The transportation site is relatively new, but he hopes that it will eventually play a role in the fight against stop-arm violations.

Flashing headlights
In Indiana, four school districts have been testing a new lighting system that has helped to reduce the number of illegal passes by vehicles traveling in the opposite direction of the school bus. These buses use alternately flashing headlights to supplement their eight-way warning light systems. "Of all of the safety devices that we’ve checked out, this is the one that we really rave about," says Jane Oakley, transportation director at Fayette County School Corporation in Connersville, Ind. The flashing headlight system was retrofitted into eight Head Start buses about 18 months ago. It didn’t take long for drivers to take notice. "There was an immediate reduction in the number of head-on stop-arm violations," Oakley says. Beginning a year ago, 12 large school buses that stopped on the state highway to load and unload students were also retrofitted with flashing headlights. Oakley says these buses were chosen because of the high traffic speed. Again, the flashing headlights were a success. "We have not had a head-on stop-arm violation on any of those buses," Oakley says. In fact, one of the district’s most veteran drivers, with 34 years of experience, told Oakley that the flashing headlight system is the best safety option that he’s seen. "He’s really sold on it," she says. "And he’s got some pretty dangerous state highway stops." Retrofitting the lighting system takes about an hour, "once you learn how to do the first one," Oakley says. "And it has worked wonderfully." The system is tied into the eight-way lights and doesn’t require any special manipulation by the driver. Oakley says all of the district’s 69 buses run with their headlights on, so the alternating flashing is actually from dim to bright, not off to on. "They go from very dim to very bright," she says. "It almost has a strobe effect. Even on a bright, sunny day, it gets your attention." Oakley says new buses are spec’d with the option and older buses in the fleet will be retrofitted as funds become available. So far, she hasn’t had any maintenance problems. The cost is approximately $125 for the retrofit kit. Oakley says the units are worth every penny. "It’s an extremely good investment," she says. "We will retrofit the entire fleet. It’s just a matter of time."

Extra stop arms
In Little Rock, Ark., a different type of bus modification is helping to alert drivers to the presence of a stopped school bus. Laidlaw Education Services has put into operation several school buses provided by the state that have three stop arms — two on the left side of the bus and one on the right. Mike Jones, assistant branch manager, says Laidlaw operates 15 buses with three stop arms each for Little Rock School District. He couldn’t say, however, if the extra stop arms have been effective in reducing illegal passes. "It might make a difference with people who might not notice a single stop arm," Jones says. But Jones feels that many stop-arm runners are not swayed by anything except the possibility of getting caught and ticketed. "Personally, I believe that if they’re going to run it, it wouldn’t make any difference if you had 10 stop arms on the bus," he says. "We had a situation where a guy repeatedly ran the stop arm, so we called school security to get out there and do some videotaping," Jones says. "If that doesn’t work, we’ll get the police out there."

The personal touch
In Gunthersville, Ala., Tony Simmons believes in the personal touch. Simmons, the transportation supervisor at Marshall County Board of Education, tries to contact stop-arm violators personally. Rather, he asks that the violators contact him. "We ask our drivers to really watch for these violators and to get a tag number if they possibly can," Simmons says. "They call me with the tag number, and I send a notarized form to our local judge’s office. They send me back the registration of the vehicle. If it meets the driver’s description, I write that person a letter." The letter informs the registered owner that the vehicle illegally passed a Marshall County school bus at the date and time on the bus driver’s report. "I ask them to call me within 10 days and let me know who was driving this vehicle," he says. "Usually, if we have a valid tag number, that person will call me back," Simmons says. "I get all kinds of excuses: ‘The baby was fretful or I was playing with the radio and wasn’t paying attention.’ But if they’re really sincere and remorseful, we usually don’t prosecute. But if they get belligerent about it and say, ‘Yeah, it was me. What are you going to do about it?’ Then we do prosecute." Simmons says the district prosecutes about 10 motorists per year, but he adds that deterrence, rather than enforcement, is his goal. To that end, he recently taped a 30-second PSA that he has sent to local radio stations and has been able to get the local newspaper to publish a free full-page advertisement urging motorists to stop for school buses that are loading and unloading children. Smaller ads, he says, appear monthly in the newspaper. Simmons says the media campaign is so effective that he sometimes receives phone calls from people who apologize for violating the stop-arm law. "They say, ‘I just want to let you know that I did it, but I’m so sorry that I did,’" he says. This year, he’s had 45 to 50 violations reported by his 88 bus drivers. But he adds that four to five times more violations are committed and aren’t reported because the bus drivers are unable to get the license number.

Mobilizing a state
New York boasts the most ambitious statewide effort to put the squeeze on stop-arm runners. For the past three years, police departments across the state have participated in Operation Safe Stop, a media event that puts police officers — and camera crews — on school buses to identify and ticket stop-arm violators. "We’re getting the message out there," says Bob Peters, the statewide coordinator of the event and transportation director at Liverpool Central School District. In 1999, 172 police departments participated, deploying 932 officers who wrote 819 citations for passing a stopped school bus. "The last few years we’ve done really well." The event is coordinated with New York’s Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee. Charlie Alonge, program representative for the committee, says the program is effective because of its high publicity quotient and also because it punishes hundreds, if not thousands, of motorists who flout the stop-arm law. "If you want to teach somebody a lesson, give them a ticket," he says. "They learn pretty quickly that way." Now in its seventh year, the program began as a local effort in Mohawk, N.Y. With grass-roots support, it has burgeoned into the nation’s largest stop-arm violation program. "It has worked out tremendously well," says Jim Brown, the founder of Operation Safe Stop and a former statewide coordinator. "It lets people know that we’re serious about this problem."

Troopers on board
In Illinois, a program called Operation SOS (Stop on Signal) has taken a page from New York’s Operation Safe Stop, but on a local level. Operation SOS, which has been in operation for the past three years, is a collaboration among the Crystal Lake Police Department, Illinois State Police and the transportation department for School Districts 47 and 155. Under the program, state troopers and Crystal Lake police officers ride school buses along "problem routes" and provide support to other routes with unmarked cars. The State Police joined the effort after it was discovered that some of the bus routes traveled outside the jurisdiction of the Crystal Lake police. During the 1998-99 school year, the law enforcement agencies issued 150 citations for stop-arm violations, with 149 of those resulting in convictions. Rather than focus only on the opening of the school year, the project is periodically activated throughout the year. "This program is ongoing throughout the school year with sporadic enforcement blitzes," explains Sean McGrath, the Crystal Lake police officer who helped to organize the project. "This is to remind motorists that as long as school is in session, this program will be in effect." McGrath says the current school year has seen a marked decrease in stop-arm violations. During a six-week enforcement effort, only 17 citations were issued. Richard Hansen, transportation director for School Districts 47 and 155, said the program has not only helped to reduce the number of stop-arm violations, but has also garnered local support. "It has had excellent acceptance by the community, including students and students’ parents," Hansen says, adding that another local municipality, Lakewood, will start its own program in the near future.

Eternal vigilance
In West Virginia, a trooper-ride-along program has had good success at Berkeley County Schools, which operates 116 school buses and transports 11,500 students. But a strong publicity campaign helps, too. "The publicity does more than anything else, but there has to be a stick involved as well," says Transportation Director Larry Carte. The stick, he says, is the hefty fine that goes along with a stop-arm violation conviction. Making the public aware of the monetary penalty is key. Even with the publicity and the trooper ride-alongs, Carte says the problem of stop-arm runners is never going to disappear. That’s why it’s so important to train bus drivers to be vigilant. "The only thing we can’t control is the driver of the other vehicle," Carte says. "It’s the bus operators who prevent those tragedies, by being observant and always on their guard. "There are some places where there is no room for error, like bus stops, school loading zones and railroad crossings," Carte says. "You can’t make a mistake there."

Careful routing
Binford Sloan, transportation director at Chesapeake (Va.) Public Schools, says fly-bys are increasing because motorists are increasingly distracted when they’re behind the wheel. "Folks nowadays have so many things going on," he says. "Our society’s gotten so upbeat. People are driving down the road talking on their cell phones or thinking about their jobs." Last year, a Chesapeake child was hit by a car as she was crossing the street to catch her bus. "The woman driving the car said she didn’t even notice the child or the bus," Sloan says. "She was on her way to a job interview and was thinking about everything she could do to get that job." Fortunately, the car was traveling slowly, and the girl suffered only bumps and bruises. "We haven’t had a fatality, but I know a lot of places that have," Sloan says. Sloan says proper routing is the key to curtailing injuries and fatalities. "Whenever possible, we try to set up our routes so that children don’t have to cross the street to get to the bus stop," he says. "Of course, there are some occasions where it’s physically impossible to do that."


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