Sharing the Stop, Sharing the Blame

The pupil transportation community is, far and away, the most isolated among America’s public transportation sectors – which include motorcoach, transit, paratransit, non-emergency medical, taxi, shuttle and limousine services. In general, this isolation has hurt the pupil transportation community, and is partly responsible for its lack of Federal funding (compared to the $9 billion the transit industry receives despite deploying a fraction as many vehicles). I myself have participated in at least half a dozen coordination-related projects involving pupil transportation services – most of which failed because of our community’s isolation and recalcitrance. However, there are some strongholds of separation we should cling to dearly.

A middle school student’s bus stop shared the same redlined curb area as a transit line, a stop located at the unsignalized intersection of a high-speed arterial street with four “collectors.” So difficult was it for vehicles to emerge from the side streets that, when one bus or another inhabited the stop, motorists used it as a “pick” (a basketball term) to inch out and quickly turn right or left into some gap in the arterial street’s traffic stream. School buses set better picks, of course, because their red flashers stop much of the through-traffic. This meant, of course, that during the very moments when passengers were crossing in front of or behind their buses, left- and right-turning vehicles were crossing their paths in order to merge into traffic.

Realizing how precarious her stop’s safety was – including rarely-if-any enforcement of pass-by violations – the student’s mother repeatedly complained to the school district. She requested that the bus that deadheaded past her doorway – on the same side of the street on which she lived, 10 minutes earlier in the morning on its way to its eventual turnaround – stop and pick up her daughter either in front of their house or at a nearby intersection. Because the school district refused, the student appropriately developed the habit of simply J-walking across the street in front of her house, and then walking to the stop on the same side of the busier, arterial street – rather than become a continual target when crossing at the bus stop. Crossing one morning, before her bus was even in sight several blocks further up the road, she was struck and killed by an automobile whose driver had the sun shining directly in his eyes.

Consequences and Crossing Orientation

Because the victim’s bus was not in sight when this incident occurred, the lawsuit’s lazy and short-sighted judge dismissed her family’s case against the school district. So the school district made no changes to its dangerous stop and foolish route alignment.

Apart from the motorists abusing the bus stop, its vehicles and their passengers, the premature resolution of this case failed to illuminate another important danger presented by the stop: The fact that it served both transit buses and school buses. This meant that some motorists would confront pedestrians crossing in front of the bus, and other times some motorists would confront pedestrians crossing behind it.

It would be unreasonable for most motorists to sort out the correlation in crossing between school buses versus transit buses. One reason for this failure is the fact that both modes’ passengers do not regularly cross properly with respect to the type of bus they are riding. Examining the more than 50 crossing-related lawsuits in which I have been involved as an expert witness, the “crossing orientation” of the victims was incorrect virtually half the time. The flip-side is, of course, that half the pedestrians struck (mostly by third-party vehicles) were crossing correctly with respect to the type of bus they were riding.

Sharing schoolbus stops with transit services is generally a bad idea, although there may be some exceptions – particularly in rural areas where traffic is minimal, intersections far apart, and shelters provide protection to the passengers. Otherwise, what makes stop-sharing dangerous is the fact that, to motorists passing by the stop, the distinction in crossing orientation between school bus and transit passengers is blurred rather than clarified. Particularly as half of all crossing accidents appear to occur when the victims’ crossing orientation is incorrect, reinforcing proper crossing orientation, and reinforcing the motoring public’s understanding of it, is of no small importance. Route design and stop selection must be careful to fortify these correlations, not dilute them.

Publications: School Transportation News.