How many school districts instruct their students, as a formal policy, to, “Please arrive at the bus stop at least five minute before the bus arrives?”
For those districts which do, no policy statement in the entire school transportation arena is responsible for as much carnage as this one. This is because most motorists, students and parents, and many drivers, management and school officials, think of the school bus stop as the strip of land where the bus stops to pick up or discharge its passengers. The problem with this interpretation is that it is correct. But what is so profoundly dangerous about this oversimplification is that it fails to differentiate between the side of the street on which the bus stops and the side on which it doesn’t. As a consequence, this policy effectively directs students living on the opposite side to cross the street to the bus stop before the bus with its “moving traffic signals” comes along to help them do so.
Sloth and Slaughter
Two pairs of middle and elementary school sisters all boarded at the same stop – a lakeside road shoulder at an unmarked, unsignalized, mid-block section of a long, high-speed straightaway, often with miles between traffic signals or even crosswalks. The single nearby streetlight’s glass housing was caked in mud, its light barely discernible. So one morning, before dawn, one of two pairs of sisters following their school’s policy made a poor choice of selecting the gap between vehicles speeding toward them in opposite directions, stepped into the roadway, and soon found themselves stranded on the yellow centerline with motorists bearing down on them from both directions. With no time to analyze their options, and no chance to retract their decisions, the eldest sister of the pair began running across to the stop side, dragging her seven-year-old elementary school-age sister with her. The older sister barely made it to the road shoulder. Her younger sister – holding her hand, and running a step behind – didn’t, and was annihilated by a motorist who did not see either child cross his windshield until it was too late to brake. Five minutes later, the friendly school bus and its moving traffic signal merrily arrived – precisely on time, just as it had every other day that year, five or so minutes after the four sisters had managed to make it across the roadway to wait for it’s arrival.
The litany of accompanying errors and omissions leading to this senseless slaughter was almost endless. Among these errors, the school did not assign stops to any of the students (see “Who Picks the Stops” in the February, 2007 issue of STN). Instead, it simply distributed the same leaflet depicting the schedules and stops to every student and parent in town, effectively enticing each to use the stop nearest to his or her place of residence. While the State possessed regulations regarding the safety of the path to and from school for walking students, fewer regulations dealt with the issue of the path to the bus stop. No regulations of any kind were applied to these students, or any others in their community, with respect to the safety of their path to their respective bus stops.
As a consequence of their options, instead of choosing a bus stop at least marked by a crosswalk that lay five minutes further away, the victim and her sisters chose the stop closest to their home, as one might naturally expect them to. As it turned out, one of the school’s buses actually stopped at the crosswalk-in-question roughly 35 minutes later, while the same bus they had been riding looped around and returned back down the very same roadway on which they caught it, except now on the side of the roadway where they lived. However, at that point on its route, the bus was so overcrowded beyond its seating capacity that the students catching it there were forced to ride seated on the floor. Thus, the complete absence of planning affected not only the stops certain students chose, but the paths they chose to reach them.
Planning with Crayolas
This scenario is not necessarily typical of all our nation’s school districts. Reinventing their own wheels again and again, and guided by various levels of regulation, many school districts employ sophisticated processes for selecting bus stops, assigning students to them, and otherwise managing crossing and other aspects of school bus operations. But the spectrum of competence is vast, and those at the weak end of it are dangerously thin on understanding and application. While crossing is the salient feature that sets school bus service apart from all forms of bus transportation (see “Who We Are and What We Do” in STN, January, 2007), there is no coherent body of knowledge on the subject, and our community has defied efforts to create one: After 70 years, planners of the 14th National Congress on School Transportation finally promised to include a section about crossing. Yet not a single word on the subject was included in the conference’s Year 2005 Proceedings.
If we want our students to be at the bus stop safely before the bus arrives, we must not only select the stops for each student, but define which side of the street on which they must wait for it – and instruct them to arrive at and remain on the appropriate side until the bus and its driver arrive to direct those needing to cross to the actual bus stop (as opposed to the waiting area). Further, we must make sure that the waiting area itself is safe for waiting and other purposes.
Regrettably, the data we employ to pat our backs omits a significant number of crossing fatalities and serious injuries that our students experience. This is because most of these victims are struck by third-party vehicles, and the data recorded as school bus-related accidents often count only those accidents where the students are struck by the bus itself. National tallies are compiled largely from summaries of state police accident reports and newspaper clippings submitted to, or tracked by, the Kansas Department of Education. But all state officials, from whom these data are obtained, do not tabulate results the same way – and some don’t tabulate them at all. Worse, police reports (themselves different from state to state) describing incidents where third-party vehicles strike the students often fail to “capture” the role played by the school bus or its agency or contractor – particularly where the bus itself is no longer on the scene, and particularly where the incident involved scenarios other than a common “pass-by.”
As a final constraint, a lot more information about these incidents is revealed from the weeks or months of analysis connected to the inevitable law suits they trigger. But only small tidbits of these analyses leak into our community’s overall information base – largely as insurance industry presentations, or from articles like this one, which focus on the themes and nuances of various types of incidents.
As a community, we will have to make and lobby for some serious adjustments in our data identification and collection methods in order to obtain the comprehensive and exhaustive record of the complete spectrum of school bus-related incidents that we really need. Otherwise, the illusion of safety that current figures suggest not only lulls us into a state of apathy, but undercuts the efforts of our community’s leaders struggling to obtain additional funding which, among other things, could help address the problems underlying many of these incidents.
Apart from the data-related issues, if we do not start building, and universally employing, a coherent body of knowledge about crossing procedures, Crayolas will be the most sophisticated learning tools many of our students ever get to use.