ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Va. — The frequency with which motorists illegally passed a stopped school bus declined by 89% in a pilot program conducted by the Albemarle County Public Schools’ transportation department in May and June.
The results follow an earlier pilot program, conducted over a 15-day period in September 2017, in which extended stop arms were installed on school buses, according to a news release from the school district. In that instance, school bus safety violations were reduced by more than 50%.
The extended stop arms in the first pilot measured 6 feet when deployed, compared to the one-foot deployment standard on most school buses. The extended stop arms proved to be more instantly visible to motorists, who not only stopped more often when a school bus was loading or unloading students, but also stopped farther from the bus.
“We were very encouraged by those results,” said Jim Foley, the transportation director for the district. “We continued to test the use of the extended stop arms on selected routes for the rest of the school year and used what we learned to further improve the program.”
That led to the most recent pilot program this year. The deployment time of the extended stop arms was sped up from 7 seconds to 4 seconds by changing the actuator from a mechanically-operated cylinder to a pneumatic cylinder, according to the district’s news release. The length of the arms was reduced from 6 feet to 4 feet to prevent the stop arms from striking vehicles in adjoining lanes.
Three routes were used for the pilot this year, including two roads with a history of unusually high incidences of motorists illegally passing stopped school buses. On one of the routes without the extended stop arms, 15 violations were recorded between May 7 and May 18. On that same route, with the extended stop arm, no violations occurred between May 21 and June 5.
Overall, on the three test routes, there were 55 violations between May 7 and 18 without the use of the extended stop arms, but between May 21 and June 5, the number of violations were reduced to six, an 89% improvement.
Motorists illegally passing stopped school buses have been a major concern of the school division for several years, according to the district’s news release. A 2013 study found that as many as 6,000 safety violations occur each year throughout the county as the result of motorists passing stopped school buses while students are entering or leaving the bus.
The transportation department first proposed the use of stop-arm cameras to record the license plates of motorists who violate the law, a proposal that was approved by both the school board and the board of supervisors. The proposal was initially passed by the General Assembly, but its implementation has been stalled by a dispute over whether car registration information can be shared by the state with the operator of the cameras, according to the district’s news release.
“Our objective is not to see more violations issued to drivers,” Foley said. “Our goal is to prevent serious accidents involving children by changing the unsafe behavior of some drivers. Stop-arm cameras have proven in other jurisdictions around the country to have that positive effect.”
While the division hopes that the implementation issues around the stop-arm camera program are resolved as soon as possible, the use of some buses with extended stop arms can help in improving safety, Foley said.
“We were one of two school divisions in the state to test the extended stop-arm concept last fall,” Foley added. “The combination of the stop-arm cameras and the use of extended stop arms would significantly improve our ability to keep our students as safe as possible,” he said.
The state department of education is reviewing the results of the district's extended stop-arm pilot programs and is considering whether to authorize all school divisions in Virginia to institute similar programs in their areas.