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June 01, 1998  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Unsafe Passage: How to Curtail Illegal Pass-Bys

Thousands of motorists illegally pass school buses every day.

by Dale MacDiarmid, Senior Editor

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Alert the media!
While motorists certainly will continue attempting to get around school buses and stop arm laws, there are a few methods for raising awareness and reducing violations. Brown's Operation Safe Stop works with local school districts to coordinate community, media and law enforcement attention on stop arm violations. First, "work internally within the school district," Brown advises. In fact, bus drivers and transportation directors interviewed for this article lamented the many parents, students, teachers and various school employees they've observed violating stop arm laws in school loading zones. District newsletters, PTA advisories and articles in student newspapers all are effective procedures for alerting the people in your district about stop arm laws. Several districts have reported significant success by utilizing these easily available outlets. The next step should take you into the community, to enlist the help of the police, the courts and the local media. But first, says Brown, do a little research: "How big is the problem? Where are the trouble spots? Is the media willing to ride along. Are school bus contractors and the police willing to let reporters ride along? How are the courts handling these offenses. Are the maximum penalties applied or are they usually plea-bargained?" Enlisting the help of the local newspapers and radio and TV stations is a tried-and-true method. "A lot of people watch the six o' clock news," says Charlie Hood, Florida's state pupil transportation director. "The single most effective thing a school district can do is meet with a team of law enforcement, tell them the problem, ask them to enforce at high-incidence locations and to solicit publicity of those events," Hood says. Vigorous enforcement usually works, but there are limits. Hood says the Florida police told him, "If you make the penalties too high, you will be less likely to get widespread enforcement. Cops are people too, and if we know someone is going to be faced with an unreasonably high penalty, in many cases we're going to give them a warning." It is a good idea, however, to contact the local district attorney and determine how the courts in your area actually are handling stop arm violations. Local prosecutors, like the rest of the public, may not be aware that it's such a widespread problem. Prosecution actually is the last resort, the real goal should be prevention. That perhaps is a good place to bring the issue back to the transportation department. A comprehensive prevention effort should include a review of the routes and stop locations for areas where motorists might suddenly encounter a stopped school bus and slam on the brakes. Drivers also should be trained to activate the amber warning lights early, allowing other motorists enough time to stop safely by the time the stop arm is extended. Expect that motorists will ignore the stop sign. Develop unambiguous hand signals for drivers to direct children when it's safe to cross. Also, review safe loading and unloading procedures, particularly those relating to special-needs students and young children. Pires' district requires kindergartners to wear name and address tags, which familiarizes drivers with their young passengers and reduces the chances that a confused 5-year-old child is allowed off at the wrong stop and wanders into traffic on an unfamiliar street. It's important for school bus drivers to be aware that leaving the stop arm extended and the red lights flashing while they chat with a student's parents might be delaying an already anxious driver who has obeyed the law and stopped. Bus drivers need not eliminate those conversations, but they do need to be aware of their effect on other motorists. If the community perceives a stop arm as a true safety device, it will be more inclined to treat the device with the respect it deserves.

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