Unlike certain benchmark changes in school bus design (like seat compartmentalization that followed on the heels of catastrophic crashes), the evolution of emergency flashers evolved slowly from data – most of it suppressed by the failure to tabulate and publicize the number of crossing fatalities not involving the victim’s collision with the school bus itself. With this piecemeal accumulation of only a small fraction of the actual carnage brought to our community’s attention, improvements in flashers thus limped along, state by state, often decades apart, stimulated periodically by federal mandates for improved equipment on all new buses, and retrofit provisions required by a small handful of states.
The proliferation of changes in certain crossing devices, like crossing control guards, often mirrored the lobbying efforts of manufacturers whose personnel meticulously tracked the pattern of fatalities which the addition of certain pieces of equipment have reduced. Yet even where significant reductions were irrefutably documented when this equipment was added (an excellent example of this trend is provided in a document by Specialty Manufacturing titled Safety Guard: Crossing Control Arms), the lives of a handful of students per state appear not to be worth the money it would cost to save them in those states that still do not require such equipment. As our economy’s largely–ignored collapse became more visible following the housing and financial crises of 2008, fewer and fewer funds have been spent on such improvements, and the number of states requiring crossing control guards, for example, was stuck at roughly 30. With our current financial environment, I expect the spread of mandates for seatbelts to, similarly, be stalled at or near the now six states that require one or another form these restraints.
But funding shortages alone are not responsible for deterring these changes. As an embarrassing example, it has long been known (and not only by NHTSA) that lap belts are patently dangerous on large school buses. But this knowledge did not persuade New York or New Jersey to upgrade their requirements to three–point securement systems. Nor, more recently, did it prevent Florida from mandating lap–only belts following a major NHTSA seat belt study that resulted in an updated final rule set to go into effect in October, despite the objections of that state’s outstanding, extremely knowledgeable and vocal director of student transportation.
Retrofitting and Hybrids
The failure of most states to retrofit amber flashers (there are a few exceptions, like Missouri) created a landscape of confusion among our nation’s motorists and professional driver alike. To begin with, in most states (California is a notable exception), requirements for the engagement of flashers changed when amber flashers were added to the equation. The addition of amber flashers presumably eliminated the obligatory slam–on–the–brakes stop forced upon approaching and following motorists the instant the red flashers were engaged. Instead, it provided a transitional warning signal that enabled those motorists who could stop their vehicles earlier to do so, and further, warned all of them that red flashers – mandating stopping – would soon follow. But this option is of no help to motorists following school buses with only 4–way flashers. Particularly on the West Coast, large numbers of school buses of both types continue to operate – often in the same school districts’ fleets!
Further compounding this problem, many school bus drivers in states without retrofit provisions feel that their "four–way" buses are unsafe, and as a consequence, improvise the engagement of amber flashers by simultaneously engaging both turn signals (or "warning lights" to which they are often referred when engaged together) as a substitute for them. This improvisation, of course, backfires: rather than render the flashers more uniform (i.e., transforming four–way buses into eight–way buses), this approach creates yet a third variations of flashers, throwing most motorists into an even deeper funk of confusion. This enigma was explored in more detail in an earlier STN installment (November, 2007) of the "Crossing Guy" series titled "Retrograde and Retrofits."
Reading deposition upon deposition of motorists who passed by school buses with their flashers engaged only to strike a student stepping out from in front of (or in some cases, behind) the bus, I began to recognize the extent and depth of this confusion. In response to it, I advocated the creation and installation of 12–way flasher systems in four successive, previous installments in this magazine (published, sequentially, in late 2009 and 2010). But the continued collapse of our economy and Ã¼ber–concentration of wealth into a tiny sliver of our overall population have compounded this problem by both limiting funds for purchasing additional equipment as well as thinning out the ranks of our law enforcement community whose presence might otherwise deter pass–bys. So not surprisingly, studies have continued to find that the number of "pass–bys" is not only extraordinary, but that it is increasing with apparent impunity.
The disparity among states for the installation of flashers and other crossing equipment is also compounded by state–by–state differences in the requirements for their engagement. In some cases, this confusion occurs even within a single state. For example, two different sets of Arizona regulations call for the engagement of amber flashers at a minimum of 100 and 200 feet, respectively, before the bus stop. Yet the state’s manual for driver certification – a document presumably reviewed by every school bus driver in the state prior to his or her hiring –– cites the requirement for the engagement of amber flashers, on busy highways (e.g., with speed limits at least 50 mph) to occur a minimum of 300 feet before the stop. This latter requirement is so unknown by most school bus officials in that state that it recently took me nearly 15 telephone calls to even learn about it. Most state officials at all levels told me that the 100–foot engagement of amber flashers is that state’s standard for it.
Such an ignorant example of anti–science is not simply a matter of opinion or the result of funding shortages. Instead, it defies the Laws of Motion and other dynamics related to following and stopping distance: At 50 mph, with a motorist’s average reaction time of 1.5 seconds, reaction time alone would consume 110 feet. After that, the vehicle must then brake to a stop – and, in most cases, the heavier its mass, the longer its stopping distance. So 100 feet before the school bus stop is an alarmingly inadequate distance for the engagement of amber flashers. Unfortunately, these principles have real–life consequences. In that state, I recently helped settle a case in favor of a motorist whose sister was beheaded when her automobile rear–ended a school bus that had engaged its amber flashers fewer than 100 feet before the stop (and compounded this error by also pulling only halfway off the roadway – while the state requires either a full pull–off or no pull–off). While this particular example did not involve a crossing accident, it clearly illustrates why there are so many of them, as well as other types of accidents and incidents related to this particular requirement.
But this is only one state, and only one unnecessary death. The next installment of this series will provide an overview of differences in crossing device engagement requirements among many other states. If you think Arizona is quirky, wait until you learn about New Jersey.