COLUMBUS, Ohio — National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) conference attendees discussed the ongoing issue of illegal school bus passing and the importance of route planning and prevention with new technologies and practices during a town hall meeting here on Monday.
The meeting, sponsored by safety solutions supplier Safe Fleet, included a panel of representatives from the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation (NASDPTS), and the National Sheriff’s Association (NSA).
Dr. Meg Sweeney, the moderator for the meeting and representative from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), provided the agency’s latest investigation details into the fatal Rochester, Ind., crash in which a motorist illegally passed a stopped school bus, killing three students and injuring one other last October.
As SBF previously reported, the NTSB released a preliminary report on the crash in February stating that the bus driver had deployed the bus’s warning lights and stop arm at the time of the crash.
During the meeting, Sweeney related the agency’s investigation into the Indiana crash to two other illegal passing incident investigations: the first in Hartfield, Ga., in which a motorist illegally passed a stopped school bus, killing one student and injuring another; and the second in Baldwyn, Miss., in which a pickup truck illegally passed a stopped school bus, killing a 9-year-old student.
Sweeney pointed out that the crash circumstances in all three incidents were similar: they all occurred on dimly lit, high-speed roadways, even while each bus driver had their bus’s stop arm and flashing lights activated.
Despite the school bus’s many safety features, Mike LaRocco, the president of NASDPTS, said that most stop-arm running incidents occur because of distracted driving.
“In most cases, we see that a motorist wasn’t paying attention because they were on the phone or texting,” he said. “We need to instill in motorists the importance of driving and driving safely.”
John Whetsel, a representative from the NSA, added that it ultimately boils down to motorists not adhering to basic traffic laws, partly because states aren’t requiring enough traffic enforcement and are banning the use of automated enforcement, such as stoplight cameras or even school bus stop-arm cameras.
Whetsel added that this is where partnerships between school transportation departments and law enforcement are deemed useful, especially when planning safe and effective bus stops and routes.
“I have never had a school district come out and ask me to assess their [bus] routes,” he said. “So, I encourage you to reach out to your [local] law enforcement officers and get input on routing.”
Several conference attendees echoed Whetsel’s recommendation, and some even cited the successes they’ve had in partnering with their local law enforcement to combat illegal passing.
For example, one conference attendee from Ohio stated that her transportation team created a safety committee to meet with law enforcement to ensure they are issuing tickets to stop-arm violators.
Another attendee from Georgia said that his district is seeing significant reductions in stop-arm violations after installing stop-arm cameras on its entire bus fleet. He added that the district went from experiencing 1,900 reported stop-arm violations per day in 2012 to now under 800 reported daily violations.
Other proposed bus passing solutions mentioned by conference attendees included ongoing mandatory license testing for all motorists, stronger illegal passing penalties, such as license suspension, and creating a mobile phone alert — similar to an amber alert — that can signal to motorists when they are approaching a school bus.
Becky Weber, the Washington, D.C., representative for the NSTA and managing director for the public relations firm Prime Policy Group, also pointed out the federal involvement that has resulted from the nation's stop-arm running epidemic.
As SBF previously reported, U.S. Rep. Walorski (R-Ind.) and Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) introduced the Stop for School Buses Act of 2019 in April. The bill 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.
Weber added that the NSTA is very hopeful the bill will be enacted and help further educate motorists on safety issues that can potentially change their unsafe driving behaviors.