Directing the Students Across

At the rudimentary level at which most crossing procedures are executed, school bus drivers are supposed to “direct” the students across the roadway when they are certain that either the traffic has been stopped in both directions or it is so distant (if even visible) that the students could easily complete their crossing before any oncoming vehicles reach the bus. The bus would obviously have its red flashers and stop arm engaged as a “fail safe.”

In most states, this procedure takes the form of alighting the students, having them queue at the far end of the crossing control guard (for those buses which have them) or roughly 10 feet in front of the bus, at and on the curb or on the road shoulder aligned with the curb-side of the bus. A few states go further: In Rhode Island, every bus transporting K-8 students must have an attendant on board to cross them. Meanwhile, in California, the driver must escort them across. But even where these higher standards are in place, the rudimentary execution of procedures is sometimes not enough:

In California, a driver transporting a kindergartner and his third grade brother stopped to cross the two students at an un-signalized location along a two-lane, high-speed, rural roadway. After engaging his flashers and stop arm, the driver alighted with both students, holding each of their hands. This phalanx then walked forward to the outer edge of the crossing control guard, and was about to enter the roadway when the kindergartner broke free from the driver, dashed into the roadway, and was struck and killed instantly by a pickup truck approaching the bus from the rear – from a position where neither the driver and his students nor the approaching motorist could see one another since the bus formed a sightline blockage.

When the inevitable lawsuit ensued, one fact that emerged was that the kindergartner had never done anything like this before, and had a history of impeccable behavior, obedience and cooperation with his bus driver. However, two fellow drivers testified to a different approach to crossing: They did not alight with the students, but instead, left them standing inside the bus at the top of the stepwell, peering out the windshield, while the drivers stepped out into the roadway to check for traffic. When all traffic had stopped or was too far away to comprise a threat, these drivers then signaled the students to alight. The drivers then checked once again when they stood at the end of the crossing guard, then directed them to cross with the drivers – both of whom first peered out beyond the street-side of the bus to make sure, yet again, that oncoming vehicles in the bus’ direction had either stopped (or remained stopped) or were too far away to matter.

This approach was so far superior to the general approach employed by the driver whose student was killed in the incident that the case was settled for roughly $6.5M – even though what the driver-in-question did was relatively consistent with the “industry standard” in California, an important concept in law suits. Unfortunately, the jurors considered this industry standard primitive compared to the procedures articulated by the school district’s two other drivers, and penalized the school district for employing it.

Applications and Implications

In most states, drivers or attendants do not escort the students across. Instead, the students typically alight, walk to a point along the curb roughly 10 feet in front of the bus (or where the bus has one, at the end of the crossing control guard), look toward the windshield, and await the driver’s signal for them to cross. Obviously, the driver’s view of vehicles approaching from behind is derived from his or her view of the street-side, exterior, flat, rear-view mirror. This view is more than adequate to perceive vehicles that have come to a stop behind the bus, but not terribly helpful in picking up an approaching vehicle perhaps a thousand feet behind it (assuming that the road segment behind the bus was straight for 1000 feet) – much less where part of this road segment was curved: In many or most states, the sole criteria for the location of a bus stop is that it be located between two 300-foot long stretches of straight roadway. So where a 50 mph roadway (typical of rural arterial streets) curved 300 feet behind the bus, an approaching vehicle traveling at the speed limit is moving roughly 75 feet per second, and will reach the bus, from a position out-of-sight to the driver peering through his mirrors, in four seconds. So when not seeing any vehicles behind his bus, the driver directs the students to begin crossing, a vehicle “just around the bend” may be upon them also in four seconds – almost perfectly timed to collide with them since, in these same four seconds, the students would likely have been able to walk into the travel lane adjacent to the stopped bus. While this precise scenario may not be so common, the relationship between the oncoming vehicle’s and students’ positions need not be so exact for a collision to occur. Further, in considering this reality, it is also important to keep in mind that the volume of “pass-bys” has been measured to reveal enormous numbers and percentages, and every school day, tens of millions of students cross from their buses when alighting during their after-school return trips home.

Rudiments and Repercussions

In stating this, I am not arguing that every school district must immediately have a driver escort its students across the roadway (much less in the manner that the two fellow-drivers above testified they did). On the other hand, the almost universal procedures in the other 48 states lie far below such standards. In a crossing-related lawsuit, the school district employing typical industry procedures is at great risk if and when a crossing student is struck by a passing vehicle. Frankly, in most school bus crossing-related lawsuits in which I have been involved, I have found evidence of a considerable number of other errors and omissions (poorly-located stops, errors in flasher engagement, failures to properly direct students across the roadway, broken equipment, dirty windshields or poorly-adjusted mirrors, dysfunctional rudimentary crossing policies, etc.). These failures helped crucify the school districts such that a criticism of their perfectly-executed but rudimentary procedures was not even needed.

As is the theme of most of my installments on crossing, many of the crossing procedures employed almost universally by the pupil transportation community seem somewhat primitive for a developed country whose astronauts landed on the moon 41 years ago. We may feel good that we transport our students in separate vehicles designed specifically to facilitate their safe crossing and safe transportation in other respects – including safeguarding them, to a great degree, from the 52,800 non-family abductions that occur in the United States every year. But in a courtroom, this “feel goodness” is often not enough.

This reality unfortunately ignores the fact that in some countries where students are transported in transit buses or motorcoaches, their crossing fatality percentages are far lower than ours. Sweden’s goal for all vehicle-pedestrian accidents is, in fact, zero. The troubling thing about their goals compared to ours is the fact that, even without separate buses with their own traffic signals, the Swedes are actually close to meeting their goals. If we are meeting ours, it is only because of where we set the bar. As a member of A.I.S.T., and having lived in Europe for several years (although never in Sweden), I am aware of many of their approaches and techniques. The sad part is that their approaches seem to work, at least in some countries, while ours, frankly, do not. That is why the many lessons in these installments, seemingly minor as they may appear, are so critical to our meeting our own goals. And that is why we must take crossing technology to a higher level.

Publications: School Transportation News.