Crossing to the Stop and Along the Path

In a past lesson (“Who Picks the Stops,” February, 2007), we learned that the selection of a bus stop effectively defines the path the student will take to reach it. This path will generally lead to the closest stop, although the closest stop is not necessarily the safest. As pupil transportation officials, we know that students do not always follow the practices designed to optimize their safety – particularly older students “feeling their oats” and who seem to know everything.

I am often mystified by how many school district officials scrutinize the paths taken by students walking to and from school – including deploying school buses for those who would otherwise encounter hazards along the way – yet pay absolutely no attention whatsoever to the paths taken by bus-riding students walking from their homes to their stops, and vice versa. Enormous emphasis is placed on crossing to the stop itself – even when that information is wrong, and commonly fails to differentiate between the stop and the “waiting area” across the street from it (see June, 2007 issue of STN). In contrast, the safety of student-riders’ paths to and from their stops is often ignored. So it is only fair to ask: How does something this basic fall through the cracks?

Walking Distances to School Versus Bus Stops

Many schools with long minimum walking distances make efforts to identify hazards between the walking students’ homes and their schools. In many states, school bus service is extended, as a statutory requirement, to students lying within the minimum walking distance if their path to school forces them to cross a hazard. Many other school districts follow this practice even when not a formal requirement. Surprisingly, little thought is given to simply modifying their paths to avoid these hazards, even when doing so is possible – by revamping routes and stops, or by other means.

To some degree, hazards along the path between the students’ homes and bus stops can be avoided by the location of the bus stop. Otherwise, simply assuming that a student with bus-riding privileges is safe is naive. We all know that more school bus passengers are killed outside the bus than inside it. So it is curious that so much is made of a student’s crossing to his or her bus stop, while the challenges he or she meets when crossing numerous intersections along the way are ignored completely:

In a recent crossing fatality, the school district was actually conscious of this path, particularly where a student would have to cross a busy street or highway to reach his or her bus stop. Policies and procedures were created to reflect this concern, and routes and stops were designed to avoid suspect crossings. But when the school year began, a number of students routinely crossed a major, un-signalized, unlit arterial street, at the bottom of a hill with vehicles speeding toward them from both directions, often in the pre-dawn darkness – to reach a stop on the other side to which they were not assigned.

While not pleased about it, school bus drivers nevertheless permitted these students to ride these buses, to which the students were not assigned. Several concerned bus drivers actually lectured the students about the risks, pleaded with them to follow procedures, and in some cases, complained to their supervisors about the continuing practice. Yet within the vast hierarchy of school officials above the driver level – a pyramid encompassing school board members, school superintendents, principals, vice principals, transportation directors, schedulers, dispatchers, training instructors, operations managers, mechanics and even bus washers – no one as much as notified the students’ parents or reinforced existing rules, including compliance with disciplinary procedures already in place for students deviating from formal, written school bus usage policies. So this practice continued until one dark morning when a motorist speeding downhill on the thoroughfare clipped a teenage girl as she dashed across the two-lane roadway (at a point where it was four lanes wide because of its right- and left-turn lanes) – an un-signalized intersection at the bottom of a hill offering 12 directional choices for motorists entering and exiting both cross streets.

Talking the Talk, Walking the Walk

Having sound policies, optimizing route design and selecting stops (rather than letting students do so) is a terrific start. But it has no meaning if the behavior for which these policies and facilities were created is not enforced. During my 20-some years in the pupil community, I have grown nauseous from school transportation officials claiming to “bleed yellow.” Students don’t need supervisors who bleed yellow. Nor do they need supervisors who bleed apathy. They need an organized hierarchy of officials who are held accountable for properly executing specific procedures – procedures for which scores of the pupil transportation community’s best and brightest have devoted their careers and their lives to develop, test and implement over a period of decades.

Having a sound transportation system in place to protect students is an obscene waste of taxpayers’ money if the design is not translated into reality at the operating level. This means that what we tell our students to do is precisely what we must make them do. If they show up at the wrong stop, we shouldn’t let them board the bus. If they cross the wrong streets, our supervisors should grab the phone and call their parents. If that doesn’t work, we should suspend them from transportation service. If that doesn’t work, we should suspend them from school.

The lesson here is not terribly deep or elusive. Two salient characteristics of teenagers is that they know everything, and they don’t listen. To run a safe transportation system, it is our job as transportation professionals to make them do what we tell them to. This can take time and effort – sometimes, more than we have. But getting our systems in precisely the shape they need to be is not enough if we fail to force the students to use them the way we designed and intended them to.

Teenagers do not run transportation systems for an important reason: They are teenagers. Transportation professionals run transportation systems because we know both how and why things should be done certain ways. When we fail to enforce this principle, our students become targets of careless motorists, and victims of their illusory infallibility. Our school board officials and the management officials beneath them need merely survive the lawsuit – if it does not indeed end their careers.

Publications: School Transportation News.