Extra care needs to be given to school loading-zone safety when buses for children with special-needs are involved, especially when the children are transported in wheelchairs. Transportation supervisors should review loading-zone safety with site administrators annually. Integrating special-needs vehicles with regular buses, parental vehicles, day-care vans, student vehicles and school campus roadways requires careful planning and review.
A closer look at wheelchairs
For obvious reasons, buses transporting students in wheelchairs require special scrutiny. The best way to judge the safety and convenience of a school loading zone is to test it yourself. You and/or the building administrator should ride in a wheelchair — from the lift platform to the classroom — to see what challenges are presented. Are there curb cuts or ramps for convenience? How about barriers such as steps or difficult doorway entries? Find out for yourself what the obstacles might be. Safety rails that discourage walking between buses or pedestrian entry into the loading zone also force buses with wheelchair lifts to position their platforms at those rail openings. Add curb cuts to open up wheelchair accessibility along a wider expanse of the loading zone. Porches or other weather coverings for all school loading-zone areas add safety and comfort. They also reduce the risk of damage to expensive power wheelchairs, which can cost anywhere from $12,000 and up. Allow lift buses preferential placement in loading-zone spaces nearest building entrances. Many children who require mobility aid have difficulty traversing long distances between loading zones and school entrances. Also, watch for the length of travel within the building for mobility aid users. Establishing alternate entrances and placement for lift buses nearest those entrances provides closer access to special-education classrooms. It also reduces the challenges for driver teams to supervise students in conjunction with special-education building personnel. Also, keep in mind that many students are routed to the school nurse for medications before going on to class.
Traffic and parking concerns
For improved traffic flow and pedestrian control around the building and through the loading zone, campus roadways and boundary streets can be changed to one-way lanes. Keep loading zones separate from parents and school buses. Buses should not mix with parental vehicles because parents may not follow the same traffic rules as buses. Parents must not load and unload their special-needs students in restricted bus loading zones. They have a basic right, however, to a loading-zone area separate from the bus staging area. A handicapped parking sticker does not confer the right to park in a loading-zone space designated for special-needs buses. Finally, the single most important factor in loading-zone safety for all school buses is supervision. School authorities must warn or ticket parents who drive or park unsafely in the loading zone. Often, day-care vans act as buses in the loading zone without the authority to do so. They must be redirected to parental vehicle areas. Campus police should require student vehicles to remain away from the loading zone.
Ray Turner is special-education transportation coordinator at Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of several special-needs transportation handbooks. For more information, visit his web site at www.whitebuffalopress.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.