It Shouldn't Take a Tragedy for Us to Act on School Bus Safety

Nov 14, 2019 12:00:00 AM


Imagine you’re running late to work. You hop in your car and drive just under the speed limit, but you’re in a rush, so you look for ways to cut corners. As you pass an intersection, you see a school bus on the other side of the road begin to flash yellow lights. When you get closer, the flashing lights turn red and you see a “STOP” arm extend into the road. You’re going 40 miles per hour and could stop if you slammed the breaks, but you don’t see any kids and decide to pass the bus. 

This scenario happens all-too-frequently—an estimated 13 million times a year, in fact. But ignoring the stop arm of a school bus is incredibly dangerous because children often cross the street as they are entering or exiting the bus. The stop arm signal indicates that the bus is stopped and the main door is open, and traffic must stop until the bus door is closed and the stop arm retracted. Yet drivers still illegally pass stopped school buses—and this dangerous driving behavior can end in tragedy, as it did in Indiana last fall

School buses are one of the safest modes of travel for children. But [pullquote]drivers and communities can and must do more to ensure that students are just as safe outside the bus as they are inside.[/pullquote] A new report I co-authored with Bonnie O’Keefe examines several student transportation safety issues and offers suggestions to better protect students. Drastically reducing stop arm violations is one of the most important steps that drivers and local officials can take to improve student transportation safety. 

Ticketing drivers who committed stop arm violations used to require school bus drivers to record the license plate of a moving vehicle, often one headed the opposite direction. That meant few stop arm violators actually got tickets. But some communities have implemented stop arm cameras, which capture images if vehicles pass the bus while the stop arm is extended. That information can then be used to ticket or fine the owner of the offending vehicle, increasing deterrents to risky driving behavior. 

Following a tragic death caused by a driver illegally passing a school bus in 2009, the Cobb County School District in Georgia Implemented stop arm cameras on their school bus fleet. As a result, they managed to reduce stop arm violations by 50%.

But [pullquote]it shouldn’t take a tragedy for state and local leaders to take action.[/pullquote] In the past ten years, sixteen states have passed measures allowing stop arm cameras, and more are actively debating this topic. Potential privacy concerns and the costs of camera installation and maintenance have posed barriers in some states. But there are ways to address these issues, and data suggests that adding stop arm cameras can reduce dangerous driving behavior around school buses. 

As a driver, you don’t need stop arm cameras to improve your own behavior. When you see a school bus on the road, pay attention to its signals. And when you see a bus flash red lights and extend a “STOP” sign, remember that it’s not a suggestion—it’s the law. If you are on a non-divided road and come across a school bus with its stop arm extended, stop your car until the stop arm is retracted, even if it makes you a little late to work. You might just save a life.

Alex Spurrier

Alex Spurrier is a senior analyst with Bellwether Education Partners in the Policy and Evaluation practice area. Prior to joining Bellwether, Alex worked as a senior data scientist at the Kentucky Center for Statistics, conducting research and working with partners from early childhood, K-12, post-secondary and workforce organizations to help them utilize longitudinal data for program improvement. Previously, he served as a Harvard Strategic Data Project fellow at the Kentucky Department of Education, where he led the creation and execution of the agency's research agenda and developed tools using statistical software to improve the speed and accuracy of analysis projects. Before that, he conducted education policy research and analysis for TNTP and ConnCAN, covering school finance, charter schools, teacher evaluation, teacher compensation and other issues. Alex got his start in education as a fifth grade teacher and Teach For America corps member in Hartford, Connecticut.

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