The NSTA welcomed Michelle Atwell from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as a speaker during the Midwinter Meeting in San Diego. - Image: Canva/NSTA

The NSTA welcomed Michelle Atwell from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as a speaker during the Midwinter Meeting in San Diego.

Image: Canva/NSTA

Recently, the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) held its annual Midwinter Meeting in San Diego. Almost 120 attendees gathered at the iconic US Grant Hotel for three days of programming that covered important topics for private school bus operators.

We were pleased to welcome Michelle Atwell, Chief of Safety Countermeasures Division, Office of Safety Programs at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), who covered a number of different safety focuses in her presentation.

Provisions of the NSTA-shaped STOP for School Buses Act (STOP Act) were subsumed in the Bipartisan Infrastructure law that was enacted in November 2021. That law, called the Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA), directed NHTSA to review and address several areas important to all of us in student transportation.

They include:

  • Implementing an illegal-passing public messaging campaign.
  • Commencing a review of technologies to mitigate illegal passing.
  • Reviewing driver education materials.
  • Providing a state laws report on illegal school bus passing.
  • Developing a report describing any relationship between the illegal passing of school buses and other safety issues and specifically rural areas.

NSTA believes that these areas of focus represent a good start as stakeholders address the growing epidemic of illegal school bus passings.

Our partners at the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) released their annual illegal passing survey last September. As a matter of background, NASDPTS has provided this survey since 2011 to capture a snapshot of trends and provide data on illegal school bus passings around the country.

The most recent survey showed:

“In 34 states throughout the country over 22% of the nation’s school bus drivers participated in a one-day survey to report motorists who passed their stopped school buses. In the survey, 79,859 school bus drivers reported that 51,593 vehicles passed their buses illegally on a single day during the 2021-22 school year. Given the lower number of drivers participating this year versus our 2019 survey, we think it is helpful to compare the years. Adjusting for 100% of the school bus drivers in the U.S., we would have seen just over 232,000 illegal passings in both 2019 and 2022. Throughout a 180-day school year, these sample results point to more than 41.8 million violations per year among America’s motoring public.”

That last statement is critical, as those results suggest that yearly there may be as many as 42 million occurrences of illegal school bus passings. That is an astounding number when you consider the risks taken with each illegal passing.

So what can we do?

We did not get here overnight; there has likely been a quiet erosion of drivers following correct protocols around stopped school buses with several factors at work – including distracted driving and a lack of consistent continuing education requirements for drivers.

Realistically, there is a lot of ground to cover. But our work must start somewhere, so I am going to highlight a few points from Michelle’s presentation of things that can be done right now, as NHTSA already has materials available for you to disseminate within the districts and communities that you serve.

NHTSA already publishes a Pupil Transportation Toolkit – Safe School Bus Stops and Routes that includes best practices for planning school bus routes, it includes a marketing and distribution plan. This is an interactive toolkit with location focus areas of urban, rural, suburban, and underserved communities.

I also suggest that school bus operators take time to visit, and in the “Get Materials” section – there is a specific area dedicated to “School Bus Safety”. It remains critical that we keep highlighting illegal school bus passing as a growing risk to the safety of America’s students, as we endeavor to change the behaviors causing the epidemic.

NSTA thanks Michelle Atwell for an engaging presentation at our Midwinter Meeting, and we remain committed to working with her and NHTSA as we continue to draw attention to this worrisome problem.