Raymond Martinez is cleared by the Senate to lead FMCSA. The National School Transportation Association says it looks forward to working with him.
The two-way radio crackles. A panicked school bus driver reports that an elementary student was struck by a motorist while crossing the street in a student loading/unloading area. As a witness of the accident, the shaken bus driver must report immediately to the police. The radio is tied up for the next several min-utes as dispatch scrambles to cover the rest of the bus driver's afternoon.
In a separate incident, a school bus driver, in tears, describes a near miss between her bus and a student in a middle-school bus loading bay. A parent had dropped the student off across the street, and the child darted across the road in front of the departing bus. Seeing the child at the last second, the driver slammed on the brakes and narrowly avoided hitting him.
A parent volunteer in the pick-up and drop-off zones at another school was backed over by a parent driving a private vehicle. She survived and tells her story to our safety committee.
In a district of 106 schools, serious and/or fatal incidents such as these are relatively few. But any accident involving children or employees is unacceptable -- and the potential for a mishap is always there if we drop our guard when it comes to safety in school loading/unloading zones.
Investing in change
In 1989, voters approved a bond to renovate, upgrade and improve schools in the Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District. Using a portion of the funds generated over the ensuing decade, new school bus zones, pick-up/drop-off points and parking lots were constructed and existing school bus areas were improved.
We soon discovered, however, that money alone would not solve the problem. Despite the millions of dollars the district invested in keeping children safe in these areas, accidents or near-accidents continued to happen. What more could we do to reduce the danger to students in passenger loading/unloading zones?
The first step toward answering that question was to analyze what was happening on a daily basis at our school sites.
Our analysis uncovered a combination of factors contributing to an overall risky environment. Students, parents and school bus drivers each added to the problem in their own ways. Having thus identified the causes, we developed a plan for making the loading/unloading zone a safer place for all parties involved. The following are the six steps we used to increase safety in our school bus loading zones.
1. Control the students
In the spring of 1998, an incident occurred at one of our middle schools that drove home the importance of controlling students in bus loading areas. While waiting for his bus to arrive, a boy lost control of his basketball, and it skittered under an idling bus. A nearby campus monitor saw the boy go under the vehicle to retrieve his ball just as the bus began to move. The monitor quickly grabbed the boy out from under the bus and saved him from being hit.
We learned some important lessons from this brush with tragedy (beyond whether or not the driver adequately checked the danger zones in the mirrors before de-parting). We discovered, for example, that the campus monitors were extremely frustrated with trying to control several hundred middle schoolers around the bus bay. These monitors did not have one important advantage that monitors at our other middle schools had -- a five-foot chain-link fence (with several lock-able gates) between the buses and the school grounds that keeps waiting children safely away from moving buses. The installation of this inexpensive fence dras-tically improved safety in the loading/unloading area.
At another school site, we altered pedestrian traffic routes to reduce mixing student pedestrians with school buses. Students who were not eligible to ride the bus used to begin their walk home by exiting through the wing nearest the bus bay and then streaming out across the bus area -- not a good setup. Depart-ing school buses had to carefully wade through the frolicking, unattentive children. When this was brought to the office staff's attention, students were de-nied access to the doors nearest the bus loading area, instead exiting the school from the other side, away from school bus traffic.
2. Train, monitor drivers
Pre-service and in-service driver training must stress the importance of exercising caution in the loading zone. If children are standing or walking anywhere near school bus entrance or exit points, the driver should be taught to wait for the students to disperse, rather than trying to squeeze past.
Trainers and supervisors also need to drill and re-drill drivers on the need to properly adjust and check mirrors for children in the danger zones. School moni-tors need to keep students back when buses are moving in and out, while drivers must remember to depart the school slowly and carefully -- not impatiently and with full-throttle acceleration.
In our district, driver impatience often manifests itself in the form of drivers passing other buses to leave a school site, rather than waiting nose-to-tail and departing in proper order. Passing in the loading zone is against district policy and presents a serious risk to students. Impatient drivers get creative, leaving a gap between their bus and the one in front of it. If the bus ahead is a little slow to load, an impatient driver simply passes the slower bus and heads on its way. No matter how many postings are placed on the bulletin board, or handbills placed in drivers' mailboxes, impatient employees continue to "justify" breaking policy for personal convenience. Ongoing supervision is necessary to deter this behavior.
Another cause of driver impatience is the ever-increasing traffic on our streets, which makes tight route times difficult to meet. Sometimes, route modifications can be necessary to alleviate this pressure. Other employees can be motivated to cut corners by a desire to rush to their midday break or to get to quitting time at the end of their afternoon runs. To encourage our employees to take their time, our district pays drivers if delays outside of their control take them beyond their contract times. This is just one way of showing them that they don't need to be in a hurry.
3. Design functional sites
Arizona guidelines prohibit mixing parent traffic and bus traffic in the same loading areas. Nonetheless, some district planners fail to take this into con-sideration when they make decisions on where to house certain programs.
Recently, one of our small special-needs high schools began housing a magnet program for regular-education high schoolers. The bus bay and parking areas were already inadequate for school buses and staff vehicles. Suddenly, dozens of regular-education high schoolers and their cars needed to be accommodated. Buses, student pedestrians and student drivers were competing for the same park-ing spaces. Realizing their oversight, district officials have since drawn up plans to drastically increase the bus bay area and improve the parking situation. In the meantime, the school suffers from severe traffic congestion and safety hazards.
At another of our schools, district planners decided to house a special-needs program, serviced by several bus routes. The school was equipped with a bus bay for five buses (though the school was served by only three) and a parent drop-off zone, located on the opposite side of the school. With additional students and vehicles, the bus bay was overwhelmed. Special-needs buses began spilling over into the parent bay, leaving the with no place to go. After several years of traffic chaos, a special-needs bus bay was built on a different side of the property -- something that should have been done before the school took on the new students in the first place.
4. Educate, enforce laws
In our school district, safety hazards caused by parents taking children to and from school far eclipse any problems associated with school bus movement. One reason for student-pedestrian accidents around schools is motorist ignorance of, or disregard for, existing laws.
According to Marcus Jones, head of engineering and former special projects coor-dinator for the Tucson Unified School District, the best-designed and most expensive sites are of little use if motorists ignore common sense safety rules and traffic regulations. Though an engineering solution can be developed for al-most any traffic safety concern at a school site, "the success of such a project is best measured by the project's ability to entice people into applying common sense and basic safe driving tech-niques," Marcus says.
But how do you go about enticing people to obey the law? Let's look at one exam-ple of a law motorists often break in our district. Arizona forbids the loading or unloading of students on the non-school side of the street at a school site. In spite of this, many parents, out of ignorance or personal convenience, park across the street and direct their children to dart across the roadway in between moving and parked cars -- a recipe for disaster.
If motorists are violating safety laws out of ignorance (many drivers we have talked to are ignorant of the Arizona law mentioned above), the obvious answer seems to be putting up signs to let them know that what they are doing is illegal. However, we find that the level of compliance is not significantly better at sites where signs are posted than it is at sites where there are no signs. Evidently, many motorists have no problem violating a law if their personal con-venience is served and the threat of being caught is slight.
Perhaps harsher or more immediate consequences -- initiating a law enforcement campaign -- would do the trick. If police officers cite the offending drivers, you would think that the problem would soon go away. But enforcement is not easy to come by. Officers find it difficult to cite such law-breakers when they take into consideration the vast number of motorists trying to access the school and the limited number of drop-off locations. Sometimes the opposite side of the street is the only available spot.
When it comes to citing motorists for law infractions, an available police offi-cer is not easy to come by in our city. Police are spread thin patrolling traffic on the main highways, where the most injuries and fatalities occur, as well as investigating "fender-benders." School districts may want to employ off-duty officers for school arrival and dismissal times. The use of non-officers to en-force traffic laws is discouraged by our local police department, due to the threat unruly motorists may pose to an employee untrained in law enforcement.
5. Reduce car traffic
Another factor behind risky loading zones is an overall increase in the number of parents driving their children to and from school. This is compounded in our district by a drastic population increase in the community. Many schools are severely overcrowded, not just in classroom space, but in the volume of motor ve-hicle traffic at school start or dismissal times.
To tackle this problem, we could construct new schools or increase busing boundaries (reduce non-bused areas). One busload of 50 or 60 children represents 30 or more cars that don't need to make trips to the school. Adding buses to currently non-serviced areas would reduce congestion around the schools and en-hance student (and employee) safety. For this to work, the district would have to make the commitment to purchase equipment and hire additional staff. This would be expensive, but most would agree that student safety is worth the cost.
Other options are to encourage students to walk or bike to school by coordinating with local governmental agencies (city or county) to create safer paths for them. Parent carpools would also reduce the number of cars coming to the school, but motorists in our area don't support this. We need to explore the reasons be-hind their resistance and find ways to address parent concerns.
6. Supervise loading
School staff or trained parent volunteers (called "Parents on Patrol" in our district) can be placed in the student loading areas to work with motorists on safety and courtesy issues. Sometimes, these site monitors are called upon to help de-escalate a confrontation between battling parents. Usually, they are there to remind motorists of loading zone rules and to help keep traffic flowing smoothly.
For example, when a parent parks in the middle of a loading area and allows traffic to back up behind him, a site monitor will gently remind him to "please pull forward."
Site monitors also have to ask motorists whose vehicles "wander" into bus load-ing areas (illegal in Arizona) to leave. Orange traffic cones can be useful in guiding cars around forbidden areas and into proper loading zones. Though police officers and school resource officers can help maintain control in the loading zone, they cannot do so without the support of school administrators and community members.
A combined effort
The administrators who have the most success at keeping traffic manageable at their schools use a combination of tactics. At regularly scheduled community meetings (parent-teacher organizations, for example) loading/unloading safety is discussed. In addition, fliers and handbills go out to parents by mail or by di-rect distribution in loading/unloading areas.
Safety in our school bus loading areas requires a comprehensive approach. Good engineering design, funding for site changes, education of bus drivers and motorists, trained school staff on the scene and use of police enforcement (when necessary) are all ingredients in the recipe for student safety.
Raymond Martinez is cleared by the Senate to lead FMCSA. The National School Transportation Association says it looks forward to working with him.
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