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School bus safety a pertinent concern for drivers

A school bus at a complete stop flashes both its lights and displays it’s stop-arm. (Nick Longworth / Enterprise)

By Nick Longworth

The 2013-14 school year is in full swing at Park Rapids Area Schools and as the year progresses students are encouraged to be mindful of important winter and health precautions – including proper winter clothing and germ prevention.

But while students are told their annual advice, parents and drivers alike are being given an altogether different reminder: take bus stop safety seriously or else.

Every year an average of 10-15 stop-arm violations occur within the Park Rapids Area School district bus stops. Violations occur when motorists drive around a bus that has come to a complete stop and begun to flash its red stoplights – coupled with the driver-side stop sign becoming visible and flashing also.

To avoid any confusion with official laws and etiquette at these stops, transportation director of Park Rapids Area School district Cindy Leach explained the rules of the road. Leach has held her position with the district for the last 16 years.

“If a school bus is in the roadway or the street, bus drivers’ will activate their amber (orange) lights, telling the motorist that they will be stopping and probably either loading or unloading students. It’s advised that every motorist stops at this point, although they do not technically have to,” Leach said.

“Bus drivers will then come to a complete stop and make sure that all cars are stopped and everything is clear. (The bus driver) will then open the bus door which will activate the flashing red lights and the stop-arm will appear; this means the driver is actually loading passengers. At that point cars do actually have to stop. If you are in 35 mph or less speed limit zone, cars must stop at least 100 feet ahead the stop-arm. If it’s more than a 35 mph zone it goes to 300 feet. If cars do not stop, it will result in consequences.”

Stop-arm violations are widely regarded as a serious traffic violation. Accordingly, they come closely attached to legal ramifications ranging from a potential misdemeanor to gross misdemeanor charges if a student is outside of the bus at the time of the offense. Fines start at $300, but increase with the severity of the offense.

These punishments, it can be argued, are nil compared to the consequences associated with a life-threatening accident.

“A car speeding past the stop arm has no clue if a student is around the corner to cross the street or not. Only the bus driver knows what is going to happen; if there is someone getting on or off. The kids are relying on the bus driver to tell them when it is clear to cross the street, but some of these kids are also at such a young age that you don’t really know 100 percent what they are going to do. It makes drivers angry when people violate the laws because bus drivers’ are only working to keep kids safe. It’s very important that these cars have to stop in order to fully ensure the safety of our children,” Leach said.

Stop-arm violations also add superfluous stress on a driver who already carrying a wealth of responsibility, ensuring every passenger’s safe and timely arrival.

“People violating these laws are just making it harder on the bus driver. They are already watching traffic; they are responsible for the kids in and outside of the bus. Now they also have to wonder what the other cars on the road are going to do and if they’re going to stop or not,” Leach said.

“It creates a situation that is out of a bus driver’s control because you can’t be accountable for what another car that goes speeding through the stop-arm is going to do,” she added. “Bus drivers, from their seat, can’t physically stop a child from walking out into traffic. We’ve had drivers who have had to honk their horn or slam their door shut to stop a child from crossing, because they would have been hit otherwise.”

Bus drivers have been trained to spot perpetrators in an effort to more successfully punish violators; a tactic that will hopefully curb the occurrences from happening.

If a driver spots someone who has violated the law, they will try to get as much information as they can on the person.

“They will call it in on the radio and give me all the information they have, including the description of the car, the license plate number if they can see it (and it’s surprising to see how good drivers actually are at getting numbers), if it was a male or female, if there were other passengers in the car, were there students outside of the bus, did they attempt to stop or did they just fly through the light and so on. Bus drivers try to describe everything about the scene that they can at the moment and I give the information to the police,” Leach said.

Hiring accountable and qualified drivers is also a decision that must be given considerable thought. Drivers must have the necessary qualifications and also go through yearly training.

“Drivers must have a CDL license with school bus and passenger endorsements. We also have a yearly training session with the state patrol in which we go through anything that’s new regarding laws. (The state patrol) also provides a refresher to make sure all drivers are on the same page. Nearly all of the training has to do with safety,” Leach said.

Students are also partly responsible for their bus stop safety. Once yearly, students are required to take school bus safety training in which the teachers and the students both go through proper precautions and procedures; grades K-3 have to do it twice a year.

One technological advancement available to curb accidents is the addition of cameras to the stop-arm itself in order to help catch violators. However, Park Rapids does not expect to have this technology available for a number of years still.

Perhaps even more than law enforcement, bus drivers themselves would like to see safety measures ramped up and punishments stiffened.

“Stop-arm violations make a driver feel helpless behind the wheel. When you’re trying to control a kid coming out in front of you and you have a car coming up from behind, not slowing, or even thinking about slowing down, it just infuriates you,” said Shawn Mahowald, a route driver for the district since 1996. “I would like to see the penalties for these violations go through the roof to make it very clear that this is a serious matter.”

Motorists are strongly advised to consider the consequences before attempting to save an extra minute or two by passing a bus illegally.

“The biggest safety concern is when kids are getting on and off the bus. Once they are on the bus they are more than likely going to be safe getting to school. Where something is going to happen to a child is getting on and off that bus thanks largely to these cars violating the law,” Leach said.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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