Close call prompts bus safety concerns
Dennis McGinley, a bus driver with Kistler Transportation, stops his bus along Route 903 in Penn Forest Township to pick up Catholic school students. McGinley said two drivers passed his bus in a dangerous manner on the first day of school last week. BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS
Dennis McGinley, a bus driver with Kistler Transportation stops his bus along Route 903 to pick up Catholic school students. McGinley said two drivers passed his bus in a dangerous manner on the first day of school last week. BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS
It was the first day back to the school year for longtime school bus driver Dennis McGinley. It could have been a tragic one.
That day two cars ignored his stop sign and lights, passing his bus from behind while a young child was walking near the bus.
One time, during McGinley’s morning rounds, a car passed on the right side of the bus just seconds before a first-grader and his mother rounded the front of the bus to board it.
“It all happened so (expletive)fast. All I saw was the color red of the car,” McGinley said.
Cars illegally passing a stopped school bus have always been a problem for McGinley and his fellow school bus drivers. There was one time that a car drove onto the sidewalk to get around his bus. Another time, a fellow bus driver grabbed a student by the backpack to prevent him from exiting while a car illegally passed on the right.
It goes without saying that drivers don’t want to be stuck behind school buses because of their frequent stops. But school bus drivers say they’re seeing drivers become more impatient, and distracted driving doesn’t help.
“Illegal passing is right now the single biggest issue of concern for the safety of the kids on the bus right now,” said Mike Berk, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association.
Pennsylvania state law says drivers only need to stop when the stop arm is deployed with lights flashing.
However Berk says that even before the stop sign arm comes out, drivers should stop when they see the flashing yellow lights on the front and back of the bus.
“People should ask themselves, is it worth it to put a child’s life at risk?” Berk said.
Jackie Kistler of Kistler Transportation encourages drivers to use their hazard lights as well as the yellow flashing lights on the front and back of the bus to give drivers even more warning, especially in areas where there are repeated problems.
The only time when a driver can ignore a stop arm is if there is a concrete or metal barrier separating the directions of traffic — like on Interchange Road. She said drivers on Route 309, which is a four-lane road but has no barrier, will often ignore the stop sign illegally.
“I get it, nobody wants to be behind the bus, but these children are our future,” she said.
In Pennsylvania, there are substantial penalties if you are caught illegally passing a school bus.
A driver convicted of illegally passing a school bus must forfeit their driver’s license for 60 days and pay a $250 fine. They also receive 5 points on their license.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, about 700 people are convicted of illegally passing school buses in Pennsylvania each year.
But the number of illegal passes is probably much more.
In a 2017 national study where school bus drivers reported the number of illegal passes observed in a single day, three-quarters of the drivers said they observed somebody illegally passing their bus.
Berk said it’s shocking that drivers can’t see or refuse to yield when a bus stops to pick up or drop off children.
“It’s appalling, what is going on out there. It’s just by sheer good fortune and blessing that we haven’t had more children killed or hurt by illegal passing,” Berk said.
Only 40 percent of the passes occurred from behind the bus. Only 2 percent occurred on the right side of the bus, like McGinley observed.
One reason why more drivers aren’t prosecuted for illegally passing school buses is the challenge of recording a license plate number while watching traffic, and students get on and off the bus.
Pennsylvania passed a law last year which will allow bus contractors to install cameras on their stop arms. That could lead to more successful prosecutions, but so far their use is extremely limited.
Parents can help prevent a tragedy by educating their children about safely using the bus stop, especially young children.
Half of the pedestrians killed in school bus-related crashes are 5-7 years old.
In 2013, a driver struck an 8-year-old girl at a bus stop in Summit Hill, ran over her sister’s foot, and struck an adult who attempted to help them. The driver pleaded guilty and received probation.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Agency says that while school buses are the safest form of highway transportation, the most dangerous part is when students are getting on and off.
NHTSA encourages bus drivers and schools to teach children to arrive early at the bus stop, stand 10 feet away from the road, and wait until the driver says it’s OK before entering the bus.
Berk encourages parents to talk with their children about the “danger zones” around the bus — areas where cars and bus drivers can’t see them.
McGinley, who also sits on the school board of the Jim Thorpe Area School District, points out that school districts spend tens of thousands of dollars on security measures. But he said they will do little good if a child is struck and killed before they even arrive at the school.
“The problem is it’s going to be hard to really fix until somebody gets killed. Then they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, we should have done something’ Now is the time to do something,” he said.