Who Picks the Stops

Many individuals can, theoretically, select school bus stops: School district management, contractors, software applications personnel, drivers, students and parents. Who actually does this is almost always an issue in crossing-related lawsuits, whether the student was struck by the school bus itself or a third-party vehicle.

When the student-victim selected the stop, the defendants are almost always asked some form of this question: “So, in your system, children who don’t even have the ability to cross a street get to select the bus stops?” There is really no good response to this question. If you make choosing the bus stop multiple choice for your students or their parents, you may be held accountable for their answers.

Shortest Path Between Two Points

As that other Einstein demonstrated, the shortest distance between two points is not necessarily a straight line. But most schoolchildren and their non-transportation-professional parents don’t think about “bending space” when they select a bus stop – even where an indirect route presents fewer hazards. Instead, students will likely use the stop closest to their homes. Because the shortest path to or from a bus stop may not be the safest, school district personnel or their agents should at least define the beginning (for PM drop-offs) or end (for AM pickups) of this path.

Planning and Plotting

In preparation for the school year, some school districts simply distribute routes and schedules, and leave it to the parents and students to select their preferred stops from the choices. These routes and stops are often nothing but last year’s routes and stops. During the initial weeks of a “shake-out period,” they are tweaked as drivers record and report new students using and not using them, and as seating capacity shortages and other aberrations emerge. Unfortunately, this approach excludes any consideration by the system or driver of whether or not the students must cross to and from their stops. Similarly, it excludes any consideration of the path between their homes and the stops. Frankly, last year’s routes and stops may be adequate and efficient starting points for planning and system design purposes. But they are a dangerous starting point for operations.

Cures and Costs

The solution to this challenge is obviously for school districts (or their contractors or consultants) to design the routes and select the stops before the provision of school bus service begins. One starts this exercise by drawing lines between clusters of dots on a map, and identifying tentative places along these lines for buses to stop – using these routes and stops as starting points. Deciding which students have to cross to or from these tentative stops is easy: If a dot (i.e., student’s residence) lies west of a north-to-south line (i.e., the route), the student will likely need to cross to reach a stop placed on the east side of it. And vice versa. If that crossing is not safe with the help of the school bus and driver, the route and/or stop (for that student) should be changed. Far better, the crossing should be safe without the bus’ and driver’s assistance. Instructing students to cross before the bus arrives is a formula for carnage, even though, in certain states, it may limit the school district’s liability.

Letting students or parents select the bus stops admittedly simplifies the management effort, and also streamlines related administrative efforts: The same pre-school “packet” containing identical depictions of the routes and stops can be sent to virtually every student and parent. Thus, stop selection becomes nothing more than envelope-stuffing. In contrast, were the school to select the stops for each student, the appropriate stop would have to at least be circled on the map enclosed, or perhaps a box checked or a line filled in. And, of course, more time would be needed to actually determine which stop each student should use. But much of what makes a school bus stop safe is whether or not the students using it must cross to reach or depart from it. Evaluating a bus stop apart from the students assigned to use it will not clarify this issue.

Liability and Responsibility

In many states, public agencies are granted immunity for errors and omissions made at the policy-making and planning levels. So lawsuits alleging negligent bus stop selection often revolve around the issue of whether or not this function lies “above or below the line.” Of course when such debates flare up, it is too late for them to really matter.

As a career transportation planner, it has always been my theory that without any air traffic controllers at all, only a few planes a year would crash into one another. Pilots would adjust, and with perhaps a bit more fuel, circling and coordination, they could work most things out. Yet this approach seems troubling intuitively. Frankly, most people would find it unthinkable. So too should be the practice of letting students select their bus stops.

Future installments in this series will explore various parameters of bus stop selection and positioning. But whatever the factors are, make sure that you – not your students or their parents – employ them in selecting \C2 the stops.

Publications: School Transportation News.