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Of the four fatalities reported in the latest National School Bus Loading and Unloading Survey, three happened in daylight with clear weather conditions.

The 2020-21 survey, released by the Kansas Department of Education (KSDE) and presented during Wednesday’s virtual meeting of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), drew participation from 49 out of 50 states (Rhode Island opted out).

“We lost a little girl in Abilene, Kansas,” said Keith Dreiling, state director of the KSDE’s Bus Safety Unit. “It was flat. You could see for miles in every direction. It was dark and a little wet.”

The school bus was stopped, its stop arm extended, red lights flashing. A young motorist – a 15-year-old girl who had just gotten her restricted license, said she mistook the bus for an ambulance or a law enforcement vehicle that had pulled someone over. She passed and struck a girl who was trying to board the bus.

“It was a tragedy for the Abilene school district, but also for the neighboring district where this 15-year-old went to school,” Dreiling said.

The other three fatalities reported in the survey included:

  • A 6-year-old boy in New York who died after running in front of the bus trying to get aboard as it pulled away from the bus stop.
  • A 7-year-old girl in Mississippi who tried crossing the street after disembarking when a semi-truck driver swerved to pass a properly stopped vehicle behind the school bus and struck her.
  • A 6-year-old girl in Texas struck and killed by the left front wheel of her school bus as she tried to catch the bus.

The survey has been conducted for the past 51 years. When it started in 1970, the survey reported 75 deaths during the loading and unloading process. Obviously, by comparison, 4 fatalities in 2020-21 is a huge improvement, but still unacceptable.

“One is too many,” he said. “It really, really is.”

He credits bus driver training with making the reduction in fatalities possible.

“When I came on board with this job, I noticed a lot of training with bus drivers, making them more aware,” Dreiling said. “We’ve always said loading and unloading is the most dangerous time for that child.”

Cumulative data from the survey over half a century indicates that 64 percent of the fatalities happen when students (mostly younger than 9) are on the way to school. During the past 10 years, data indicates that 44 percent of fatalities occurred because of a vehicle passing the stopped bus.

On a related topic, NASDPTS expects to resume its illegal passing survey in spring 2022. Ronna Weber, NASDPTS executive director, told attendees on Wednesday “it is incumbent on us to educate everyone else on this.”

Extrapolated data from the 2019 survey suggests that, nationwide, 17 million illegal passings occurred, putting lives and property at risk.

“The time (motorists) think they’re saving passing a stopped bus and not paying attention is not helpful at all and very dangerous,” Weber said.

The passing survey, started in 2011 but paused the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, started with 27 participating states and is now up to 39. Weber wants more to add their data.

“Obviously, we would like to get higher,” she said. “Our data is only as good as the information we receive.”

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