In his short career as a school bus driver, 22-year-old Robert Matthews probably never imagined that one day he would look into the impressive array of mirrors on his bus and spy the body of a girl sprawled in the street behind him. But that’s what he saw on the afternoon of Jan. 9, after 5-year-old Aleana Johnson got off his bus and apparently tripped over her shoestrings as she was crossing in front of the vehicle. “She tried to get up and the bus rolled over her,” said a fellow bus passenger whose futile warning scream to Aleana might have the been the last words the youngster heard.
The incident took place in Columbia County, Ga., where Aleana, a kindergartner described by her mother as “beautiful, bubbly and full of life,” attended Westmont Elementary School. But the incident could have taken place on any street in any city in America.
Although it’s too early to assign blame, the first question that comes to mind is whether or not Matthews checked his mirrors carefully before pulling away. But that’s not the only question. Could he have checked the mirrors carefully, but failed to adjust them properly during the pre-trip inspection? Or did he allow himself to be distracted by children still on board the bus and avert his gaze from the crossover mirrors to make eye contact with them using his overhead mirror?
We might never know what led to this particular tragedy, but it focuses badly needed attention on a key component of school bus safety — the proper adjustment and use of mirror systems. To that end, we interviewed safety specialists around the United States and Canada to generate a list of common mirror errors that bus drivers make. This is what we found.
1. Not bothering to adjust the mirrors
Probably the most unforgivable mistake that drivers make regarding their mirror systems is not adjusting them during the pre-trip inspection. Many drivers don’t bother adjusting their mirrors because it’s too much of a hassle to flag down a mechanic to help with the process. “Especially when it’s a driver or a sub driver who’s using another bus,” says Bonnie Carpenter, safety director at Northwest Local School District in Cincinnati. “They fail to ask for help. They feel that it will be OK, at least for this trip.”
2. Adjusting the mirrors improperly
Even if a driver makes the effort to adjust his mirrors, it doesn’t mean he’s going to do it correctly. For example, he might not know what he’s supposed to see. “There are so many mirrors and ones that seem to overlap that drivers really do not know what each mirror is for,” says Alice McCullough, safety supervisor for We Transport/Towne Bus, a school bus contractor in Islip, N.Y. Some school bus operators have addressed that circumstance by painting mirror grids in the parking lot that help the driver determine if his mirrors are in proper adjustment. “Mirrors need to be adjusted properly so drivers can see where front and rear tires contact the road surface, because this is where students might be going after a dropped item and where they could be killed or injured,” says Cindy Raulli, a driver trainer at Liverpool (N.Y.) Central School District. Not only is it important that drivers know what they should be able to see in the mirrors, they should also seat themselves properly while the mirrors are being adjusted. “Some will sit up straight to guide the adjustment, but when they are driving, they have a tendency to sit back in a more relaxed position,” says Cindy House, owner of a school transportation consulting firm called Safely on Board in Spruce Grove, Alberta. “This could change the view that the mirror is offering, making the mirror less useful. While the mirrors are being adjusted, the driver must remember to sit the way he or she normally does while driving.” Drivers also need to avoid the mistake of adjusting the mirror brackets instead of the mirrors themselves. “Unfolding the bracket results in the mirrors extending further out from the body of the bus, effectively increasing the width of the vehicle,” says Dan Littlejohn, safety supervisor for Laidlaw Education Services in Beaufort, S.C. “This invariably results in a higher rate of mirrors striking objects, usually tree branches, and breaking the right-side mirrors.” Littlejohn says the same problem can occur with the left-side mirrors, which increases the potential for two buses to “slap” mirrors. He says left-hand mirror collisions are especially dangerous because any resulting broken glass can fly into the passenger compartment.
3. Not checking the security of mirrors
Assuming that the mirrors have been adjusted properly during the pre-trip inspection, are they really secure? “You need to physically pull on the mirrors to see if they are secure to the bus frame and brackets,” says Pat Glade, a driver trainer at Township High School District 211 in Palatine, Ill.
4. Not keeping the mirrors clean
OK, if you’ve followed the steps mentioned above, your mirrors are properly positioned and tightly secured. But are they providing a clear image? “A common driver mistake is not keeping their mirrors clean and not removing moisture during the pre-trip inspection,” says Sid Neff, transportation director at Bryan (Texas) Independent School District. If the mirrors are dirty or covered with moisture, it doesn’t matter how well they’re positioned, they won’t be an effective tool for the driver. Carpenter says her district puts window cleaner out by the fuel pumps so drivers can clean their windows and mirrors while they are fueling their buses. “This has helped a great deal,” she says.
5. Using the wrong mirrors
If mirrors are clean, properly positioned and tightly secured, a driver at least has the chance to effectively use them while driving, loading and unloading children and parking. But there are still some significant mistakes that can be made. One of them is using the wrong mirror. “Drivers tend to use the crossover mirrors as driving mirrors,” says Glade. Not only is this a bad habit, but it also encourages drivers to turn the crossover mirrors “out” toward side traffic. “Then they can’t see as full a view in front of the bus as the crossover mirrors are intended for.” Raulli has noticed that some drivers check their overhead mirrors instead of the outside mirrors as they pull away from a bus stop. “The outside mirrors need to be checked last for any students that may be running after the bus,” she adds.
6. Not scanning properly
Even if drivers are using the proper mirrors for the appointed task, they still might not be “seeing” what they should. “They need to spend a full second in each mirror,” says Dick Fischer , president of Trans-Consult in Peyton, Colo. “And if they see something in there, no matter how small, they should not move the vehicle.” “A quick glance may not be enough to recognize potential dangers,” agrees Cheri Jones, safety specialist at School District U-46 in Elgin, Ill. “Drivers need to look at what they’re seeing in their mirrors.”
7. Not rocking and rolling
Relying too much on the mirrors, even if drivers use proper scanning techniques, can be dangerous because vehicles as large as tractor-trailers can hide in blind spots. “One of the most common errors drivers make is not ‘rocking and rolling’ in their seats,” says Sandy Crotty, who works with Cindy Raulli as a driver trainer at Liverpool Central School District. “They stay so stationary that they’re not checking the blind spots sufficiently.”
8. Not staying focused
Drivers can spend too much time using their mirrors. “It is absolutely necessary for the driver to use all of the mirrors on a bus; however, using the overhead mirror as a primary disciplinary tool means that the driver’s eyes are on the mirror and not on the road,” says Littlejohn. “The possible consequences of this inattention are boundless and involve, without exception, negative results.” Drivers occasionally reduce their normal mirror usage, especially if they’re distracted or running late. “Drivers get in a rush and don’t adequately assess what their mirrors are showing them,” says Neff. The consequences of this practice also are almost always negative. “I frequently remind our drivers to use their mirrors,” says Jones. “Nearly all of our ‘turning’ accidents result from drivers failing to use their mirrors.” “Remember, if we do not use the mirrors correctly the first time, when will we have the chance to do it over?” says Fischer.
Eventually, mirrors may become a thing of the past. Holographic imagery or video monitors could be developed that would make existing systems obsolete. Until then, however, mirror manufacturers are striving to improve their products to make them safer and easier to use. In the past few years, manufacturers have added new features to mirror systems, including remote-control adjustment and heating. Both of these improvements have added to the effectiveness and convenience of mirror systems. Meanwhile, manufacturers continue to introduce innovations. At Rosco Inc. in Jamaica, N.Y., engineers have been working on cutting glare. “There’s been a concern in the industry that crossview mirrors sometimes glare in the driver’s eyes from sunlight or headlamps,” says Ben Englander, VP engineering at Rosco. In response, Englander says Rosco has developed an anti-glare application that can be applied to portions of the crossview mirrors. “It’s completely transparent, but it does darken the area to reduce glare,” he says. The patent-pending product can be applied to existing bus mirrors or ordered on new buses. Rosco is also working on mirror integration to reduce clutter. Englander says Rosco’s Integra-style mirror on the Thomas Saf-T-Liner ER has a single-point mount and incorporates sideview and crossview mirrors, helping to reduce the visual distraction of multiple brackets. “We worked with engineers at Thomas to design a system that is similar to the top-of-the-line European motorcoaches,” Englander says. At Mirror Lite in Rockwood, Mich., the focus has been on adding remote control to existing products and marketing a radical convex mirror that expands the viewing area on the right side of the bus. “There has been lots of movement toward remote-control mirrors,” says Dan Swain, Mirror Lite’s VP sales. Although they don’t guarantee that mirrors will be properly adjusted, remote controls relieve drivers, especially substitutes, of the onerous task of manual adjustments. Swain says Mirror Lite is adding remote controls to two existing products in the next few months. Swain says the company’s New Englander™ sideview system combines a top mirror that can be remotely controlled with a lower convex lens that allows drivers to see the stepwell and, at the same time, across two lanes of highway. “If there ever is a situation in which a child is hung up in the stepwell, say with a drawstring caught in the handrail or door, they will show up in this mirror,” Swain says.