HIGH PRAIRIE, Alberta — Red lights flashed and the stop arm swung out as the school bus stopped to unload students, and an SUV braked as it approached the front of the bus.
It was a winter’s day in northern Alberta, with a layer of snow lining the sides of the rural road near the small town of Wagner on the banks of Lesser Slave Lake.
“See you guys tomorrow. Have a good evening,” said the High Prairie School Division bus driver as a few passengers began to disembark.
Suddenly a horn blared on the road ahead. A fully loaded logging truck was hurtling toward the SUV that had stopped for the bus.
“Watch out! Stay here! Stay here! Stay here!” the school bus driver implored as she held out her arm to block a student from descending the steps.
As the horn grew louder, the SUV moved to the shoulder opposite the bus — barely escaping the logging truck as it barreled by.
“If the SUV hadn’t moved out of the way, there would have been tragic consequences as a result,” said Harry Davis, director of transportation for the High Prairie School Division. He noted that the truck could have deflected off of the SUV and into the bus, and the logs could have become projectiles. “I hate to imagine what would have happened.” No students were crossing the road at the bus stop, and no one was injured. But the alarming incident served as a reminder of the ongoing need to educate all drivers about stopping for school buses.
The Jan. 26 logging truck pass-by was captured by exterior video cameras on the High Prairie School Division bus. The district has equipped all 50 of its route buses and some of its spares with exterior cameras, violation sensors, and interior cameras supplied by British Columbia-based Seon.
Davis said that the High Prairie School Division has seen a reduction in illegal passing since the stop-arm cameras were installed about a year ago. The video evidence has helped convict offenders, and awareness of the cameras on High Prairie buses has spread by word of mouth and the local media. Even so, as Davis put it, “one [violation] is too many.”
After the logging truck pass-by, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) “wanted that evidence right away,” Davis said, and “the offending operator was severely charged.” In Alberta, penalties for illegal passing of school buses include a $543 fine and six license demerit points.
The lumber mill told Davis that the truck owner-operator who passed the High Prairie bus will be reviewed for appropriate follow-up action. But the response to the incident didn’t end there: The company's management team invited Davis to give a safety presentation to its other contracted drivers.
On March 9, Davis and Constable Rachael Glendenning of the RCMP attended one of the mill’s driver safety meetings and gave a presentation that covered such topics as what the amber and red lights on school buses mean, how far away from the bus to stop (6 meters/20 feet), and the penalties for illegally passing. Davis also explained the camera systems on High Prairie’s buses, and he highlighted visibility features like conspicuity tape and strobe lights. But the biggest attention-getter in the presentation to the truck owner-operators was the video footage of the offending operator passing the school bus.
“They were passionate in what they saw, that it was very unacceptable,” Davis said, noting that he was careful to not characterize all commercial drivers with one bad example. “They were true professionals. You can see that they were passionate in wanting to ensure we have safe roads out there.”
Beyond talking with the company management and the truck owner-operators, High Prairie School Division makes other efforts to promote school bus safety awareness, such as partnerships with law enforcement, involvement in a traffic safety coalition, annual radio messages, and submissions to the local newspaper.
The district’s school buses cover a large rural area, transporting about 2,100 students daily to 16 schools in the towns around Big Lake County and Lesser Slave Lake. The High Prairie drivers log a total of about 8,900 km (about 5,500 miles) per day.
As for the school bus driver whose bus was passed, Davis said that the district reviewed the recorded data — the driver’s speed approaching the stop, her braking, when she activated the amber lights, and the operation of the red lights and stop arm — and they found that she did everything right. “She was a true professional,” Davis said of the school bus driver.
Davis noted that the addition of stop-arm cameras with violation sensors has relieved his drivers of the task of trying to jot down details on vehicles that pass while they are stopped.
“They can focus much more on loading and unloading their students,” he said. “That allows for increased safety and comfort levels for the drivers.”