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School bus safety
Safety doesn’t end at the school doors
Drivers, maintenance and laws vital in protecting students
Kentucky School Advocate
By Brenna R. Kelly
Matt Walden wasn’t surprised to learn that motorists often break the law and drive around Covington Independent school buses as students are getting on or off, but the numbers stunned the veteran bus driver.
“I was thoroughly shocked at how many we actually had,” said Walden, who is also a driver trainer. “It’s horrible, it really is.”
Covington Independent was one of 77 Kentucky school districts that participated in this year’s annual national count of illegal school bus passes. Drivers illegally passed Covington’s 18 buses 39 times – more than two times per bus – during the one-day survey making Covington one of seven districts to observe one or more illegal pass per bus.
The survey is just one of the many ways district transportation directors, school boards and state education officials are trying to make sure Kentucky’s 660,000 public school students are safe on the way to and from school.
Driver training, bus maintenance and educating motorists about the laws governing stopped school buses all play a role in keeping students safe while in transit.
It’s not just a stop sign
In 2018, the number of Kentucky school districts participating in the illegal passing survey more than doubled. Elisa Hanley, pupil transportation supervisor at the Kentucky Department of Education, hopes the remaining 96 districts will participate in 2019.
“We try to let districts know that the data helps protect students,” she said. “We can’t get funding for safety improvements if we don’t have the data.”
Under Kentucky law, passing a stopped school bus in either direction on a two-lane road when the bus’s warning lights are on and the stop arm extends is illegal. But the survey shows that many Kentuckians are breaking that law.
This year, observers on 2,667 Kentucky school buses recorded 728 illegal passes during the April survey. Nationally, observers recorded 83,944 illegal passes of 108,623 buses in 38 states during the survey which is coordinated by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (http://www.nasdpts.org).
Both Fort Thomas Independent and Covington Independent participated for the first time this year and were the only districts in the state to record two or more illegal passes per bus.
Fort Thomas uses only two buses because it transports only preschool and special education students, said Matthew Winkler, transportation director and network administrator. But those buses recorded 18 illegal passes – an average of nine per bus.
“With just the nature of the types of students we are transporting it takes a little more time for them to load and unload,” he said. “The impatience of people sometimes gets the better of them.”
In September, the district launched a media campaign along with the local police to educate residents about the dangers of passing stopped buses, Winkler said.
KDE also tries to educate motorists, working with the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety to spread the word about school bus stop laws, Hanley said. KDE has also sponsored billboards with the message, “It’s not just a stop sign, it’s a child’s life.”
In Covington, the high illegal pass rate was likely due to the urban, densely populated area the district services, Walden said.
“People aren’t paying attention, people are on their phones, people don’t want to sit and wait anymore,” he said.
The penalty for passing a stopped bus is up to a $200 fine or up to 60 days in jail; however prosecuting drivers is often difficult, Hanley said. Many police departments fail to pursue charges even when a school bus driver records a passing car’s license plate number.
So instead, transportation officials focus on educating the public about the law and its consequences, especially during National School Bus Safety Week, which this year is Oct. 22-26.
“The biggest thing for us is just getting the word out to the public what the actual laws in Kentucky are,” Hanley said. “We need to make sure everyone understands what the laws are and to watch out for those kids.”
Driver training matters
School bus drivers are the first line of defense in keeping students safe, said Paula Allen, driver trainer for Campbell County Schools and president-elect of the Student Transportation Association of Kentucky.
And Kentucky school boards are instrumental in supporting bus driver training, she said.
“Our board supports us in our training in allowing us to use any available time we have,” Allen said.
In Campbell County, the district uses its drivers’ make-up snow days for training. Even veteran drivers go through obstacle courses and closed courses that are part of new-driver training.
“Our accident rate has gone down dramatically, and I think that’s a direct correlation to amount of training that the board allows us to do,” she said. “They support us that way.”
Beyond behind-the-wheel training, Allen said the Campbell County board supports drivers by making them feel a part of the district team. Board members often attend bus garage functions such as the holiday breakfast, she said.
“They did get elected to that office, so they do have a little political grain in there somewhere,” she said. “but they are also the people who have the power to do what we need to have done.”
Having well-trained drivers is particularly important in light of the bus driver shortage that has been plaguing the state, Hanley said. Often when there’s a bus driver shortage, districts pull maintenance technicians out of the garage to fill in.
To address the shortage while still using highly trained drivers, some districts are doubling routes to use one bus driver on two consecutive routes, others are staggering start times and some are eliminating bus stops close to school, she said.
“It’s always a concern, but I think directors are really trying to be innovative in how they make those changes,” she said.
The maintenance technicians are needed in districts’ bus garages to make sure the buses are safe for students, Hanley said.
Kentucky regulations state school buses must be inspected once a month when schools are in session.
A comprehensive maintenance system is the key to keeping school buses running economically, efficiently and, most importantly, safely, she said. This means frequent checks of all buses, routine preventative work for technicians and replacing worn out parts.
“Preventative maintenance means that buses are less likely to have major breakdowns on the road and students are not on the side of the road in danger,” Hanley said.
In Robertson County, a new bus garage will allow just this type of maintenance, said Superintendent Sanford Holbrook.
“This new garage will help us make our buses safer,” said Holbrook, who frequently fills in as a substitute bus driver.
Robertson County’s school board voted to spend $750,000 on the new garage which will replace a 50-year-old building that was too small to fit a school bus inside, Holbrook said. The old garage also did not have a lift.
“Now they’ll be able to walk underneath it, instead of laying on the ground trying to work,” he said. “It’s going to improve the overall quality of the inspections and let mechanics get a better view of everything.”
The garage, which is being built near the school’s campus, is expected to open in January.
“I'm thankful that our board of education saw this as another step in improving safety for our students by providing a top-notch facility for our bus inspections,” he said, “and an area for our mechanics to work to make sure our buses meet all the safety requirements.”
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