Ten school districts across Michigan have been piloting an LED message alert system that may become a requirement in state law, with the aim of reducing illegal passing incidents.
State Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, has been an advocate of installing additional lighting on the back of school buses to reduce the number of vehicle pass-bys since teenage siblings Bruce and Antonia “Toni” Privacky of Ravenna were killed when their car ran into the back of a school bus in 2011. Hughes introduced a bill requiring additional lighting on school buses following the accident.
The additional lighting proposal is being presented, in cooperation with the school districts, Michigan State Police, the Michigan Department of Education, and the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation (MAPT), following a series of studies involving vehicle pass-bys.
“The safety of our kids while traveling to and from school is of paramount importance,” Rep. Hughes said. “While the tragedy that occurred in 2011 was the impetus behind this program, through my research, I have learned that vehicle pass-bys are a huge problem in nearly every school district in our state. If the enhanced lighting is shown to be effective, I think all districts should consider installing it on their buses.”
The school districts have added an LED display system, called Driver Alert Lighting System, to the warning light system of the bus, to see if it will reduce pass-bys. The systems were donated by Safe Fleet Bus & Rail.
The system is basically a message board, explained Mac Dashney, principal associate at Pupil Transportation Operation and Management Institute and the MAPT legislative committee member who is heading up the pilot project. Once the bus driver slows the bus and puts the overhead yellow lights on, a sign in the middle of the back door in line with the brake light says “CAUTION STOPPING.” Then, when the bus driver stops and opens the entrance door, and the red lights come on, the sign flashes the words “STOP” and “DO NOT PASS.”
The pilot was designed to provide a cross-section of urban, suburban and rural districts with different roads and speed limits to determine what routes have a high incidence of pass-bys, explained Darryl Hofstra, director of transportation at Forest Hills Public Schools.
The districts spent two weeks collecting information on passbys without the alert system and are now in the second week of collecting data with the equipment installed on a total of 40 buses statewide.
Bus drivers are counting pass-bys from back to front; front to back; time of day; a.m. route or p.m. route; left side or right side; two-lane roads or roads three lanes or more; roads with speeds of 45 miles an hour or less; and three or more lanes of traffic with speeds greater than 45 miles an hour.
The alert system is designed to counteract the three causes of pass-bys: driver distraction, ignorance of the law, and drivers being unable to see the lights.
The message board’s alternating, flashing text is located in the middle of the emergency door between the upper and lower windows, closer to the motorists’ line of sight — about 46 inches off the ground for sedans and passenger cars — to better catch motorists’ attention.
“The overhead amber and red lights on the warning light system sit about 9 feet off the ground, and for a lot of motorists that is out of their line of sight,” Dashney noted.
To deal with ignorance of the law, the message is now spelled out for motorists.
“We’re now telling motorists what they need to do, when they need to do it, and why they should do it,” Dashney said. “We have put the school bus driver in a position to be more communicative with motorists around them.”
And many motorists will get that message twice a day, he added.
“People that follow the bus in the morning and see the message board are the same people who will approach the bus from the front in the afternoon. We’re banking on the fact that that written word has greater impact and catches their attention.”
After data is gathered, it will be reviewed by MAPT’s legislative committee. If the data show that the system appears to reduce pass-bys, then Hughes and her staff, MAPT and the Michigan State Police School Bus Inspection Unit will add to the bill a requirement for all school buses in the state to have a driver alert messaging system. They will also put together a generic spec so that more than one vendor can bid on it, Dashney said.
Rep. Hughes would submit the bill in December, with the hope that it would pass and be put into law by July 1, 2016.
Tim Funk, transportation director at Ravenna Public Schools, said he was approached last spring about the pilot because the two students in the fatal 2011 crash were from Ravenna. During the pilot, Ravenna reported 10 illegal pass-bys on its 12 buses before installing the alert system.
“One of my drivers said, ‘I can see the cars coming behind me. I’m just waiting for them to smack the bus, and there’s nothing I can do,’” Funk said. “So, she is excited to have that device on the back of her bus to let people know that she’s stopping and not to pass the bus.”
“I hope it will help pave the way for the new legislation,” he added.
Dave Meeuwsen, transportation director of Zeeland Public Schools, said Zeeland’s five buses had approximately 15 passbys each day of the pilot before installing the system last week, but he doesn’t think there have been any passes from behind since the system was installed.
“I have a pretty good feeling it will [cut pass-bys], but time will tell.”