It’s been a little over a year since the fatal Rochester, Ind., crash that claimed the lives of three students and injured one other. The incident and subsequent school bus crashes issued a shock wave throughout the industry — just as many pupil transporters were attending the annual National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) conference in Kansas City, Mo., last October.
The incident not only served as a reminder to pupil transporters of the importance of school bus safety, but also of the constant need to ensure their training efforts, safety equipment, and loading and unloading procedures are up to par.
“Whenever there’s a tragedy like this, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is there anything that we can do going forward to not have this happen again?’” says Todd Watkins, the director of transportation for Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools. “We, as pupil transporters, need to look for any proactive things we can do and talk about them in in-service meetings. We need to use these tragedies to try and get some good out of them to prevent this from happening to another student.”
That was the approach Watkins says he took several years ago when a student in his district was struck by a vehicle that illegally passed a stopped school bus. Thankfully, the student was not seriously injured, but Watkin says the bus surveillance video of the incident still serves as a “safety wake-up call.” He also says it was one of the key reasons Montgomery County approved the purchase of stop-arm cameras for all of the district’s buses for the 2019-20 school year.
“The challenge [for school districts] comes with influencing the behavior of the motorists on the road with school buses,” says Adam Baker, the press secretary for Indiana’s State Department of Education. “Nearly all school bus accidents can be avoided by motorists paying attention and slowing down. However, the conversations around making safer those things within a district’s control need to come from legislators and school leaders.”
From installing stop-arm cameras to partnering with law enforcement for increased traffic patrol and implementing public safety campaigns, school districts are ramping up their safety efforts to further prevent incidents like the fatal Rochester, Ind., crash and many others from happening now and in the future.
Illegal Passing Crackdown
Within the past year, a record number of bills have either been passed or introduced in multiple states to address school bus safety. Most of the legislation has been geared toward toughening penalties on stop-arm running and allowing or even requiring stop-arm and exterior cameras on school buses.
On a single day last year, nearly 131,000 school bus drivers in 39 states reported that 95,319 vehicles passed their buses illegally, according to an annual survey conducted by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS). This number was significantly higher than the 83,944 passing incidents reported last year.
While the number of passing incidents may have increased, Watkins says his district and many others have made strides to implement the use of school bus cameras.
“We’ve added stop-arm, interior, and exterior surveillance cameras for the first time ever on all 1,378 of our fleet’s buses,” he says. “This is something we’re extremely proud and happy about, and we believe we’re making changes in [motorists’] behavior.”
Since piloting the cameras in Oct. 2016, Watkins says his district has seen a significant decrease in its per bus/per day passing events. He also says the district’s repeat offender rate has dropped to about 6%.
Increased Traffic Enforcement
In addition to the growing use of school bus cameras, districts’ combined safety efforts with law enforcement have sparked more awareness among the motoring public about how to drive safely around buses.
In August, Indiana’s Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the distribution of $380,000 in grant funding from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute for increased traffic enforcement near school bus stops across the state. The funding — distributed among 230 Indiana police agencies — allows the agencies to equip officers with resources to enforce increased fines and penalties for stop-arm running.
Sue Harrison, the transportation director for Michigan City (Ind.) Area Schools, says that partnering with local police officers has helped significantly in reducing the district’s number of reported stop-arm violations.
“Motorists are becoming more aware, and we’re not getting as many complaints from our bus drivers,” she adds.
Harrison, who was a police officer for 24 years, says she understands firsthand the impact law enforcement has on school bus safety, especially when she would go out patrolling the neighborhood.
“It’s like having an extra pair of eyes, except this time there’s more consequences involved with motorists getting increased fines for passing school buses,” she explains.
Route, Stop Changes
Several states have adopted special guidelines for enhancing the safety of the loading and unloading process for students at bus stops.
In California, the State Department of Education already has in place a longstanding procedure that includes the driver escorting students across the street.
Meanwhile, in Indiana, school districts are now required to adopt special practices for reviewing bus routes and safety policies, including prohibiting bus drivers from loading or unloading students at a location where they would need to cross a roadway.
Since the new law was passed this summer, Zach McKinney, the transportation director for Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Fishers, Ind., says that now his district requires bus drivers to run their routes prior to the start of each school year to report any safety issues.
“This ensures that if there are areas of concern, then those stops are marked to keep them as door side pick up only,” he explains.
In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools has similar requirements.
“We have a rural part of our county where sometimes we have students cross on neighborhood streets where we think it’s safe,” Watkins says. “But, we’ve had a longstanding practice on controlling where kids are able to cross. For example, we don’t cross on roadways that are higher speed even if they are one direction. Even in areas where we’re allowed to have kids cross by state regulations or law, we often don’t have them do so if we believe it’s a riskier than average stop to exit the bus.”
To further boost safety on routes, Harrison says Michigan City Area Schools has increased its number of bus monitors.
“We have a total of 50 monitors for our elementary and special-needs routes, so they’re able to assist with children walking across the street,” she adds.
The monitors — as well as the rest of the district’s transportation staff — are required to wear reflective safety vests to make them more visible when they’re getting off the bus.
Joining National Efforts
Earlier this year, South Bend (Ind.) Community School Corp. became part of the larger conversation around bus safety when its transportation staff presented several bus safety initiatives to U.S. Rep Jackie Walorski’s chief of staff, says Juan Martinez-Legus, the district’s former transportation director.
In April, Rep. Walorski (R-Ind.) and Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) had introduced the Stop for School Buses Act of 2019, which aims to look into ways to prevent school bus passing incidents by directing the U.S. Department of Transportation to conduct a comprehensive review of existing laws and programs in all 50 states, recommend best practices, and create a nationwide public safety campaign.
Some of the ideas presented to Walorski’s staff — before the bill’s introduction — included uniform bus stop procedures nationwide, special school bus stop requirements, and requiring two stop arms and LED lighting on all full-size school buses (a current requirement for all South Bend Community School Corp. buses), Martinez-Legus says.
“We use the brightest lighting all around our buses which helps with visibility during our early morning routes,” he says. “We also order our buses with rear stop arms and front crossing arms to make sure motorists know when our students are crossing the roadway.”
Aside from legislative involvement, Michigan City Area Schools’ transportation department has taken an alternative approach to raising public awareness about illegal passing.
The district recently recreated The Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love” in a viral video urging motorists to “Stop when the arm is out.”
“One of my drivers came up to me about the idea for the video after seeing how the Rochester, Ind., crash affected our community,” Harrison explains. (The bus involved in the crash was not Michigan City’s.) “After that, I had my staff send out a memo to see who would be interested in participating. We just got the ball rolling, and it turned into this big viral sensation.”
As of press time, the video has been viewed more than 20,000 times on the district’s YouTube channel.
“With our campaigns, we want our drivers to be responsible for reinforcing the education around school bus stop safety in our community and everywhere else,” Harrison says. “Sometimes our drivers will even wear T-shirts with the ‘Stop when the arm is out’ phrase while they’re out on routes, in addition to the signage we’ve put up near our school bus stops with the phrase. All of those little things really make a difference.”