AMBOY - The stories have been tragic. The recent news of children killed at school bus stops by drivers passing stopped school buses has raised alarm across the country.
Within one week, five children were killed at bus stops by careless drivers. In Indiana, three children, a 9-year-old girl and her twin brothers, aged 6, were struck and killed at their bus stop on Oct. 30. The next day a boy, 9, died in Mississippi after a similar incident and on Nov. 1, a 7-year-old in Pennsylvania was run over and killed while waiting for the bus. Additionally, more than 20 other students were struck and injured at bus stops in recent weeks.
In Amboy District 272, Superintendent Joshua Nichols said the problem of drivers passing stopped buses had been going on for some time but this year, the incidents spiked. Bus drivers were filing reports every day of vehicles passing them when the bus was stopped with the stop arm out and the lights flashing. Although the bus drivers were instructed to get the license number and the make and model of the car, Nichols said generally it was difficult for them to do so while also tending to the students.
“We reached out to the Lee County Sheriff’s Department but when we had no license number or vehicle description it was hard for them to do anything,” Nichols noted. “But they were very supportive as was the Amboy Police Department and we appreciate that.”
Nichols explained that the problem areas have been mainly on Rt. 52 between Amboy and Dixon and on Rt. 26.
“I don’t know if people are just in that big of a hurry or what, but it’s unacceptable to me,” he emphasized.
Thanks to information from a parent, Nichols learned that school busses could be equipped with video cameras to record incidents of cars illegally passing stopped school buses.
“I didn’t even know you could get cameras on a bus,” Nichols admitted. “A parent sent me a video of a district out west that was having this problem and they installed cameras.”
Although the cost was $2,500 per bus, the school district felt it was an important safety measure and had a system installed on one its buses. “If it saves a life, it’s well worth it,” he said. “The cameras take a very nice picture of the car’s license plate, front and back, and it shows clearly who is in the car. You can also see if the stop arm is out at the time the car is passing.”
In the first week, Nichols said they got three videos of cars passing a stopped bus, which were turned over to the sheriff’s department. “And I think we have a fourth video now,” he added.
In Illinois, the penalties for drivers convicted of passing a stopped school bus include losing driving privileges for three months and a fine of $150 for the first conviction. Drivers who receive two convictions within five years have their driving privileges suspended for one year and receive a $500 fine. And for those who injure or kill a child at a bus stop, the penalty is much greater and lasts a lifetime.
Although Nichols was not sure if any tickets had been issued due to their videos, in the Mendota School District, transportation supervisor Gary Kettleborough said they did have one conviction last year. “Most of the time the bus drivers are not able to get the license plate number but in that case, the bus driver was able to get the number and the parent was standing right there and saw it happen,” he explained.
Like Amboy, Kettleborough said Mendota’s bus drivers are told to file a report any time a vehicle passes them while the bus is stopped with the stop arm out. Usually, they have two or three incidents every year, mostly on routes 52 and 251. This year, Mendota purchased two new buses that came equipped with outside cameras, so drivers breaking the law will automatically be recorded.
“I think it’s mostly distracted drivers,” Kettleborough commented. “The bus drivers sit up high so they can look down and see when people are talking on their phones or texting. It’s a real problem.”
Part of the strategy in Mendota has been to create bus routes in which students do not have to cross busy roads but that is not always possible. “We have to train the kids also - for example, we tell them to make eye contact with the driver of a car before crossing the street,” Kettleborough said.
School bus safety
Although drivers bear sole responsibility for safety when they are behind the wheel, it is also a good idea to teach children proactive ways to remain safe at bus stops. State Farm offers the following tips:
Driving near buses
Follow these tips to help protect the children when you drive.
• Be alert and SLOW DOWN if you are near a bus. There is never a good enough reason to speed, and it is downright careless when there are children nearby.
• Do not pass a school bus that is stopped to load or unload students. All states have laws that tell you under what circumstances you can and cannot pass a stopped school bus. Most buses actually have stop signs that display when children are getting on and off the bus. In general, it does not begin to move after until the red flashing lights on the bus are turned off, the stop arm is withdrawn, and the bus begins to move.
• Keep an especially close eye on students as they get on and off the bus - stragglers might run! The most dangerous part of the trip, for kids, is getting on and off the bus.
• Know and understand traffic laws and speed limits near a school bus and schools. Oftentimes, the laws change during school hours.
Teach your children
Help take the danger out of the trip to and from school by instructing children about school bus stop safety. The National Safety Council (NSC) recommends children should:
• Wait away from the roadway and board only when the bus has come to a complete stop.
• When crossing in front of the bus, walk at least 10 steps away from the bus so the driver can see them.
• Never walk behind the bus. Drivers might lose sight of kids in their blind spots.
Please visit the National Safety Council for more school bus safety information.
For Nichols, there is zero tolerance when it comes to school bus safety. “I understand that life can be hectic and people are in a hurry to get where they’re going, but when the lights are flashing on a school bus, you just stop. Everyone knows that.”