Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

TOP STORY >>Drivers often fail to yield to buses

Story by Leader staff writer Heather Hartsell

Yellow flashing caution lights on school buses alert other drivers that the bus is preparing to stop and children will soon be loading or offloading. Or at least that is what the lights are meant to do.

But one concerned Cabot parent living on Lewisburg Road says she is scared that an accident will occur due to other drivers’ lack of attention.

“Just this morning a vehicle ran past the bus when the caution lights were on. He threw up his hands as if saying ‘I’m sorry,’” the parent said. “In my opinion he had time to stop if he was paying attention,” she said, adding, “this type of thing has happened before and it scares me to death.”

Her two children, 6- and 8-years-old, ride the bus to Magness Creek Elementary when she is not working at the school and know to wait for the bus stop sign to come out and for traffic to stop before they hurry onto the bus and sit down.

“I reinforce it every morning though until I am sure they can do it themselves,” the mother said.

To prepare herself for an accident, she drives her children to the bus stop at the end of their driveway and always has her cell phone with her.
“I pray to God each day an accident doesn’t happen,” she said. “We all know the reputation of Lewisburg Road. My family has lived on this road for four years, and at least four people have been killed in that time,” she said, adding that her family witnessed an accident last February and were on the scene before the ambulance and others were.

Cabot Superintendent Dr. Tony Thurman said the district agrees it is a very dangerous situation.

“We receive complaints from bus drivers on a regular basis,” Thurman said, “It’s not uncommon for vehicles to pass stopped buses.” Thurman placed a call to Lonoke County Sheriff Jim Roberson and asked him to increase patrols on Lewisburg Road in the mornings and afternoons.

“Sheriff Roberson is always willing to support the school district,” Thurman said. “He has even gone so far as to put deputies on school buses to ride with a patrolman following. The deputy on the bus can watch for violators and radio the trailing unit.”
Charlie Donham, Cabot school’s transportation director, has had a handful of concerned parents and drivers tell him of incidents this year where motorists didn’t heed the lights of a school bus.

He said at least 15 reports were filed last school year when drivers failed to stop for a bus or passed a bus with its yellow lights on.

“I ask all the (drivers) to have more patience,” Donham said. “It’s not a question of where an accident might happen if this keeps on, but of when,” he said.

“The thought of someone running over someone else…people need to have patience,” he reiterated. “You can’t argue the fact that these kids are our pride and joy. I wish people would be careful,” Donham said.

Small percentage

He believes there are probably a small percentage of motorists who truly don’t see the flashing lights because of their minds being elsewhere, but “how do you miss something lit up like a Christmas tree?” he asked.

“We carry precious cargo on our buses,” Donham said, “Our number one goal is to make sure no one is ever hurt or killed while getting on or off, or while riding.”

And with extended learning opportunities (ELO) classes beginning Monday at some Cabot schools, motorists should prepare to see buses later in the evening.

Cabot’s ELO classes end nightly at 5 p.m., putting school buses full of third- through sixth-grade students on the road later than usual.

The classes will be held at both middle schools and at Ward Central, Westside, Northside and Central Elementary schools where buses will be out at night taking students home as quickly as possible. Some buses might still be on the road after it gets dark, Donham said.

By law, when a school bus stops to drop off or pick up students, motorists must stop too.

The buses give other motorists plenty of warning that a stop is about to occur. The yellow flashing caution lights are turned on 250 feet from the bus stop to alert drivers of an impending stop and put them on caution to slow down.

When the bus is completely stopped, the red lights are flashing and the stop arm is extended; both directions of traffic are required to stop at this point. If at a four-way intersection, all four directions of traffic must stop too.

Illegally passing a stopped school bus with red lights flashing is commonly known as a “stop-arm violation,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which refers to the stop-sign shaped “arm” that extends from the left side of the bus when the red lights are activated.

The penalty for breaking the law by passing a school bus with its lights on varies by occurrence.

According to Sgt. Brent Lucas with the Cabot Police Department, the penalty for the first occurrence can vary.

“They can be fined anywhere from $250 to $1,000 for passing a stopped school bus; they could be sentenced to no more than 90 days in jail; or a combination of both,” Lucas said. “They might also face up to 400 hours of community service or have their driver’s license suspended from 21 days up to one year,” he said.

If a student is hit and killed by a motorist that failed to stop for the school bus, that person would face manslaughter or negligent homicide charges, depending on the situation, Lucas said.

“Drivers just need to remember to watch out for the kids because sometimes they (the children) don’t watch out for themselves,” he added.

Arkansas law has become more strict on drivers who do not stop for school buses, requiring bus drivers to submit information about the vehicle, such as color, make and license plate number, to the school district’s administrative office.

According to Act 718 of the Arkansas 86th General Assembly, school bus drivers who observe motorists violating code 27-51-1004, passing when stopped prohibited, or code 27-51-1005, operation on multiple lane or divided highways, must report the license plate number, issuing state if not Arkansas, and a brief description of the vehicle to the superintendent of the school district within two hours after the end of the driver’s shift for that period of the day.

The superintendent in turn has 48 hours from the observation to provide the information to the local prosecuting attorney’s office.

“It really helps in prosecuting a motorist if the bus driver has witnesses to back up what happened,” Donham added.
Bus facts

According to NHTSA, school buses are one of the safest motor vehicles on the highways.

In fact, they are nearly eight times safer than passenger vehicles.

However, the most dangerous part of the school bus ride is getting on and off the bus.

An average of 31 pedestrians are killed each year while getting on or off school buses, 23 were struck by the school bus and eight were struck by another vehicle, the NHTSA reported.

Half of the pedestrian fatalities in school bus related crashes are children between 5 and 7 years of age. They are hit in the danger zone around the bus, either by a passing vehicle or by the school bus itself.

The danger zone is the area on all sides of the bus where children are in the most danger of being hit.

Children should stay 10- to 20-feet away from the bus (or as far away as they can) and never go behind it.

They should also take five giant steps in front of the bus before crossing so they can be seen by the bus driver.

The NHTSA also reported that an average of 10 passengers are killed each year in school bus crashes; most of the school bus passenger fatalities were in non-survivable situations.

Education is key

School officials want to stress safety to parents, children and motorists about the do’s and don’ts of bus safety, especially with National School Bus Safety Week being observed the week of Oct. 22-26.

Children must follow the rules to protect themselves, and parents must play a vital part in educating their children on what they should and should not do. It’s also important for other drivers to obey the rules of the road and watch for buses with signal lights on.

TIPS FOR Children

Get to the bus stop at least five minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive.

When the bus approaches, stand at least three giant steps (six feet) away from the curb and line up away from the street.

Wait until the bus stops, the door opens and the driver says that it’s okay before stepping onto the bus.

If you have to cross the street in front of the bus, walk on the sidewalk or along the side of the road to a point at least five giant steps (10 feet) ahead of the bus before you can cross. Be sure that the bus driver can see you and you can see the bus driver.

Use the handrails to avoid falls. When exiting the bus, be careful that clothing drawstrings and book bags with straps don’t get caught in the handrails or doors.

Never walk behind the bus.

Walk at least three giant steps away from the side of the bus.

If you drop something near the bus, tell the bus driver. Never try to pick it up because the driver may not be able to see you.

TIPS for Drivers

When backing out of a driveway or leaving a garage watch out for children walking or bicycling to school.

When driving in neighborhoods with school zones, watch out for young people who may be thinking about getting to school but may not be thinking of getting there safely.

Slow down. Watch out for children walking in the street, especially if there are no sidewalks in the neighborhood.

Slow down. Watch for children playing and congregating near bus stops.

Be alert. Children arriving late for the bus may dart into the street without looking for traffic.

Learn and obey the school bus laws – learn the flashing signal light system: yellow flashing lights mean the bus is preparing to stop to load or unload children; red flashing lights and extended stop arm indicate the bus has stopped and that children are getting on or off.

Motorists must stop their cars and wait until the red lights stop flashing, the extended stop sign is withdrawn and the bus begins moving before they can start driving again.