Officers throughout the state are stepping up enforcement to crack down on motorists illegally passing school buses.
Stop-arm runners plague school bus drivers nationwide. One driver from Ohio explains it this way: "It seems to be the same story every day. At least one motorist will go right by my stopped bus with red lights flashing and stop arm out. No matter how many times I turn a license plate number in to the highway patrol, the violations continue. Is a fine and a few points on a person's driving record enough? What can we do?"
Across the county, the school bus community is attempting to answer that lingering question, "What can we do?" Local and statewide stop-arm running campaigns have sprung up, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released an 88-page report on some of the best of them. "Best Practices Guide: Reducing the Illegal Passing of School Buses" is available through the NHTSA Website at www.nhtsa.gov.
The problem is multifaceted, involving three main components: 1) Lack of compliance with the law: Motorists are ignorant of the rules and the penalties for breaking them or simply don't care about the rules; 2) Lack of reporting of violations on the part of school bus drivers or law enforcement officers; 3) Lack of enforcement by the judiciary when violations are reported. With help from the NHTSA report and from school bus operators waging war on illegal passing, we've compiled these strategies for educating the motoring public and garnering law enforcement and judiciary support for your stop-arm running program.
Manage program locally
To be successful, a stop-arm running campaign should have a local component, in which coordinators are responsible for educational activities and enforcement efforts in their region. In New York state, a trailblazer in the war on illegal passing, Operation Safe Stop is organized locally by counties. Counties are grouped into eight regions statewide, with three coordinators in each: one from law enforcement, one from the county traffic safety board and one from the pupil transportation community. These three coordinators reach out to everyone in the region.
You will also want to find partners on the local and state level to help fund and manage the project. Possible state-level partners include the Department of Transportation, the Department of Motor Vehicles, school transportation associations and the state police. Locally, try soliciting assistance from school boards, police, judges, parent-teacher associations, community service organizations, SAFE KIDS coalitions, Safe Communities coalitions, Neighborhood Watch and private businesses.
If the program is statewide, state-level organizers should compile and distribute materials, such as incident report forms and sample press releases, to local coordinators (see "Materials for how-to packets" below). Additional materials could be supplied by program partners. For example, you could ask a local insurance company to print refrigerator magnets that you can hand out at the state fair. Or you could partner with a local TV or radio station to run public service announcements (PSAs) on stop-arm running.
Develop an annual strategy
Decide whether you will wage an ongoing campaign or focus on a single day or weeklong "media blitz." Both types of campaigns have been successful for operators, though many who started with single-day campaigns are moving toward year-long efforts. "We're trying to make the program a little more flexible," explains Jim Minihan, transportation director at Lakeland (N.Y.) School District and statewide coordinator of New York's Operation Safe Stop. Previously, the state's 64 counties focused their efforts primarily on one day in October, just before National School Bus Safety Week. Information was distributed via TV, radio and newspapers. Police officers rode school buses and patrolled hot spots. Media rode in school buses or police cars to cover enforcement efforts. Judges were notified of Operation Safe Stop and asked to deny plea-bargaining efforts.
Minihan says the statewide program is moving away from the single-day media blitz and toward year-long enforcement. "In New York, we know statistically the most dangerous time is in March," he explains. By providing local coordinators with the materials they need, they will be able to step up their efforts in March or any other time of year. The packet provided to local coordinators, Minihan says, will include a PSA video, an instructional video for PTAs, civic groups or driver's education classes, reporting forms, flyers and more. "It will include how to contact your local law enforcement to set up your own Operation Safe Stop," he says.
Connecticut is likewise moving away from single-day enforcement toward ongoing efforts. "A lot of the companies that were participating in it [Operation Safe Stop] said that they'd made arrangements with their local police departments to do it regularly during the year, rather than just concentrating on the one day," says Robin Leeds, executive director of the Connecticut School Transportation Association. Previously, the program focused on one day in April declared by the governor as Operation Safe Stop Day. Why April? "In the fall, there's sort of a natural push for school bus safety and a lot of attention is paid to it in terms of back-to-school issues. But in the springtime, people have forgotten all about school bus safety," Leeds says. The move toward an ongoing, locally-run program, she says, is a positive one.
"What Operation Safe Stop did was to establish communication between the transporters and the police departments, so that the police became more aware of this as a problem," she says.
With consistent, effective communication between operators and law enforcement, your stop-arm running campaign will not only be easier to conduct, it will also be far more successful. In Tennessee, the state highway patrol partners with pupil transportation to crack down on illegal passing. The safety officer of the highway patrol in each district spearheads the effort by issuing advisories to the media and working with schools to get officers on school buses. Throughout the year, the safety officer talks to students and to civic groups such as the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs about school bus safety, including illegal passing.
Capture TV coverage
Radio, TV and print campaigns can all be effective means of getting the word out to motorists. As part of Will County's (Ill.) Operation S.A.V.E. (Stop Arm Violation Enforcement), PSAs are broadcast on local radio stations during rush hours, and public service spots are run on local cable channels. Officers also participate in local radio talk shows to discuss school bus safety.
Though television is generally an effective means of reaching the masses, experience shows that PSAs are often broadcast on cable stations at hours when few are watching, giving them marginal utility. The Florida Department of Education, for example, aired PSAs 5,297 times in a 45-day period on nine major cable stations as part of its NHTSA-sponsored initiative. The PSAs had little impact due to poor airtimes.
With that in mind, North Carolina Operation Safe Stop, also sponsored by NHTSA, purchased TV airtime for PSAs to be broadcast during prime time, rather than at odd hours. The PSAs ran for one week in one community, with discouraging results. According to the NHTSA report: "Purchasing airtime for PSAs is very costly and didn't show immediate results. It would be better to try to generate TV news coverage than to buy the airtime."
Video footage of violators is a great way of garnering media attention. In Onslow County, N.C., a video camera was mounted on the stop arm of one bus. Not only did the footage earn the operation increased support from local law enforcement officials who were suddenly able to see just how bad the problem was, but the video also made for great material to distribute to the media and to show at press conferences.
If you cannot equip a bus with an exterior camera, you can invite a reporter to ride the bus and record the ride for the news. As part of Operation Safe Stop in Pittsburgh, a TV reporter with a camera accompanies a police officer parked in an unmarked vehicle outside the school to document violators from time to time throughout the year.
Blanket the town in print
Officials at Connecticut Operation Safe Stop say that the most effective way to get in the newspaper is to get one of the wire services to distribute a story about your event, rather than going directly to the local paper. Local papers will pick up the story from the wire service. They say it's also easier to get a piece in the newspaper if you work through the superintendent of schools, as news out of the superintendent's office may be taken more seriously.
Other print campaigns involve the production of signs, banners, posters, stickers and other memorabilia with stop-arm running messages. Organizers in Will County distributed bumper stickers, posted signs at dangerous spots reading, "Do not pass the school bus" and displayed illegal passing messages on the marquee of local businesses. "I made brochures and bumper stickers. They had snappy little slogans," says trooper Armida Baccega, Operation S.A.V.E. coordinator. She combined the media campaign with in-person instruction. "We went to senior citizen groups and I did high school driving classes," she says. "Because it's just not a law everybody understands. They think you stop for the bus and then you just go."
Many programs involved hanging posters at the DMV or the DMV distributing pamphlets with driver's license renewal notices. In Clearwater, Fla., a tip card in the form of a bookmark about illegal passing is distributed by the police using these methods: with receipts at local car wash chains, by the local store of a national bookstore chain, with all traffic citations and to all utility customers. The program also developed advertising banners for public transit buses on 10 routes throughout the county.
In Teton County, Wyo., home of Jackson Hole, a year-round attraction for tourists, the stop-arm campaign involved several unique tactics. In addition to an ad in the paper when school starts, organizers hung posters at car rental agencies and launched a tent-card campaign at local hotels. "They [the materials] showed not only what the fine is and how dangerous it is, but also how the lights work," explains Knowles Smith, transportation director for the Teton County School District. However, after further analysis, it was discovered that the majority of violations were committed by locals and not tourists. At that point, says Smith, "We changed our emphasis."
Hand in hand with motorist education goes reporting of infractions. If infractions are not reported, motorists see no consequences to their actions, which leads to further disregard for the law. Reporting methods vary from state to state with respect to who is qualified to report an offense, what information needs to be supplied in the report and what consequences will ensue. In Wyoming, a motorist must completely overtake the school bus for it to be considered a violation. In states like Pennsylvania and Washington, a ticket will be issued immediately based on a driver's report. In other states, such as Connecticut and Tennessee, only a warning will be issued unless a law enforcement official witnesses the act. Working with law enforcement to develop a system that is consistent countywide is the best method of enforcement.
In Teton County, PTA volunteers started riding school buses in the mid-1980s to help record violations. "That was one of our biggest turning points," says Smith. "They [PTA volunteers] realized how bad the problem was and put some pressure on the political entities." The involvement of the PTA, in fact, garnered the attention of the media and the story made the front page of the newspaper, with the headline, "PTA Bus Crackdown Nets 26 Violators."
Over the years, Teton County has developed a system whereby a driver calls in the description and license number of a passing vehicle and the staff at the garage reports it to the sheriff while the driver finishes the route. If law enforcement can get a registration number for the vehicle, a police officer will be dispatched to the garage to interview the driver before trying to find the motorist. "By interviewing the driver, the officer becomes a second witness," says Smith. If the case goes to court, the officer can testify on the driver's behalf, which significantly increases the odds of prosecution.
It also helps if one or more specific officers are assigned to deal with all school bus reports. In Pittsburgh, two officers have been assigned to that duty, which lends consistency to the enforcement system. A report from a school bus driver is taken seriously and will result in a citation. An officer will meet with a group of school bus drivers to show them how to properly complete citation summons forms.
This cooperation between police and school bus operators is key to the success of a stop-arm running campaign. Unfortunately, the two groups are not necessarily natural allies. Oftentimes, it will take work to develop a respectful, mutually beneficial relationship. In North Carolina, an initial meeting of Operation Stop Arm participants brought to light the fact that law enforcement officers were skeptical about the statewide violation count, as well as about the consistency with which drivers were enforcing the law. They wanted to be sure all drivers were activating their lights at the same time and controlling traffic in the proper way. In response, a brochure and six-minute video were developed for school bus driver training. This effort, combined with the video footage procured through a stop-arm camera, elicited police support for what they now realized to be a prevalent problem and one operators needed support in combating.
In Clearwater, drivers are offered incentives for reporting violators. Drivers with the most reports receive a coffee mug with the program logo on it, pens, key chains and a certificate. Also, the state Department of Transportation set up a toll-free hotline at (888) STOP-4KIDS for citizens to report violations anonymously. During the time the hotline was in effect, the fine for violations was successfully increased from $25 to $50 plus points to the driver's license.
Set appropriate penalties
A common complaint among school bus operators nationwide is that violators are not judiciously prosecuted. If a complaint makes it through law enforcement and a citation is issued, what then? In many cases the fines are low (see chart below) and don't deter violation. In other cases, the penalties are so high that judges refrain from imposing them, allowing violators to plea to a lesser charge. "It's a very hard case to win," says Baccega of stop-arm violation cases in Wills County, where the penalty for a first offense is $150 and a three-month driver's license suspension. "I actually developed an entire question-and-answer scenario for the state attorney's office so that they would ask the appropriate questions, so that it would be harder for the judges to throw them out," she says. But it's still tough to get a conviction, and most violators get their sentence reduced to improper lane usage, which carries only a $75 fine and no report of the violation on the driver's record. "These judges will come up with the most bizarre reasons to let these people go," she says. "One of the schools we have is Lincoln Way and in one case, he [the judge] let the guy go because we didn't establish that we weren't talking about Lincoln, Nebraska."
Likewise in Pittsburgh, a stiff state-mandated penalty results in many charges being reduced. Pennsylvania's penalty is a $100 fine, a 60-day driver's license suspension and five points on the license. Personnel involved in the stop-arm running project would like to see a sliding scale penalty for the violation, based on number of offenses. That way a charge would be less likely to be reduced and would go on the violator's record as "passing a stopped school bus." This would help deter second offenses, as well as enable the state to better track the number of violations that are occurring.
And tracking that information is key. That's how you convince law enforcement, the media and eventually the public that the problem is real and important. "Data, data, data," reminds Smith. "Florida, Texas, North Carolina — everything turned around for everybody when they had some data."
Smith used his data, and some smart negotiating with a judge, to develop a program for remedial motorist training, a sort of traffic school for stop-arm runners. Called the Ride-Along Program, the system allows motorists the choice of having the violation go on their record or doing five ride-alongs on a school bus. The Ride-Along Program is only open to motorists who law enforcement and transportation authorities deem qualified — those who seem remorseful and are not belligerent. "We were a bit concerned about liability in the beginning. But we don't have to worry about it because it's a court-placed situation," says Smith.
For one of the violator's last ride-alongs, Smith puts him on the bus that he passed. "We've only had one or two people who were uncooperative," he says. But the others have learned from the experience. "We had one guy show up who said, 'I have never had a mark on my license. I'm an excellent driver and this didn't happen.'" After he rode on the bus with the driver who turned him in, he came to Smith's office with the blood drained from his face. "I don't believe what just happened. I realize that I screwed up," he said. "I stopped on that road for the bus. But it was the first bus. I never saw the second bus."
Materials for how-to packets
Local campaign coordinators should be armed with these materials.
<font size="2" face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif">Stop-arm violtion penalties
|STATE||FIRST OFFENSE FINE||OTHER PENALTIES|
|Alabama||Varies by court jurisdiction||n/a|
|Arizona||Approx. $170, depending on judge||n/a|
|Arkansas||$35-$500||Community service of up to 7 days and license suspension of 90 days to 6 months|
|Delaware||$115-$230||And/or imprisoned 30-60 days|
|Florida||Minimum $100, $200 for passing on right||n/a|
|Illinois||$150||3-month automatic suspension of license|
|Indiana||Misdemeanor = up to $1,000. Civil = up to $10,000||Misdemeanor = up to 180 days in jail|
|Iowa||$100 + court costs of approx. $40||n/a|
|Maryland||$270||3 points on license|
|Michigan||$500 + civil fine and court costs||Possible 100 hours community service at a schools|
|Mississippi||$200-$500||And/or improsonment for up to one year|
|New Jersey||$100||And/or up to 15 days imprisonment or community service|
|New Mexico||Minimum $139 + court costs||n/a|
|New York||$250-$400||5 points on license and up to 30 days in jail|
|North Carolina||$250||5 points on license|
|Ohio||Up to $500||n/a|
|Oklahoma||$115 + court costs||n/a|
|Pennsylvania||$100||60-day license suspension and 5 points on license|
|South Carolina||Approx. $1,000||Up to 30 days in jail|
|Texas||$200-$1,000, set by judge||n/a|
|Vermont||Determined in court = $20.50-$1,020.50. No contest/guilty = $170.50.||n/a|
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