John Willoughby: Greene Publishing, Inc.
In recent weeks, multiple reports of children being struck by vehicles while boarding the bus have surfaced on the news nationally … some children have recovered while, unfortunately, several children have been killed by the impact.
On Tuesday, Oct. 30, three siblings: six-year-old twins and their nine-year-old sister, were killed in Indiana after being hit by a vehicle as the children were crossing a two-lane highway to board their school bus. Another child's death occurred on Wednesday, Oct. 31, while the nine-year-old was struck by a vehicle as he was crossing the road to board the school bus. Additionally, on Thursday, Nov. 1, five children and two adults were waiting for the school bus when they were struck by an oncoming vehicle. The children ranged in age from six to 12 years old and one received critical injuries, however, the injuries were reported to be non-life threatening. The adults, ages 31 and 32, received non-life threatening injuries.
More locally, on Wednesday, Oct. 31, a kindergarten student in Tallahassee was struck and injured while crossing the street, preparing to board the school bus. The 19-year-old unidentified driver was given two citations and the child has since been released from the hospital.
"I think we're going to have to take a more proactive approach," said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen Pickles. "It only takes a split second. I think people just don't pay attention." Dr. Pickles also stated that she has considered having bus drivers take up both lanes of the road when stopped to pick up children, however, she stated she spoke with Undersheriff Epp Richardson of the Madison County Sheriff's Office about the legalities of doing such things. "I spoke to Undersheriff Richardson and we talked about some of the things happening in other states," said Dr. Pickles. "Those are not legal, thus we will have to focus on preventative measures through training of drivers."
There is not a specific timeline on when the issue will appear before the District School Board of Madison County, however, Dr. Pickles stated that she is working toward a more proactive approach to making school bus stops safer for students and drivers alike before something major does occur.
According to Ivan Johnson, Supervisor of Transportation for the District School Board of Madison County, there have been no injuries reported as a result of oncoming vehicles passing stopped school buses unlawfully in Madison County. "We've been pretty blessed," said Johnson, though he stated there has been a couple of close calls.
The transportation department for the District School Board of Madison continues to look at new, proactive measures to keep students safe and vehicles from passing stopped school buses. Changes in where the school buses stop have been made over the course of several years. Johnson also stated that four to five years ago, the transportation department began adding cameras on the outside of the buses to help identify individuals who pass stopped school buses unlawfully. "They're pretty effective," said Johnson.
Additionally, as the District School Board of Madison County orders new buses, those buses will come into the county equipped with the proper camera implements to identify those breaking the law, according to Johnson.
Richard Noel has been a school bus driver in Madison County for the last 10 years and states he tries to be proactive by staying aware of his surroundings in order to keep himself and his students safe. "We do very good in our driving," said Noel. "It's a lot slower pace but that doesn't mean accidents can't happen."
According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, motorists are required to stop when approaching a school bus that is stopped with its red lights flashing and "STOP" arms extended. Respectively, on two lane roads, vehicles traveling in both directions must stop. On multi-lane paved-across roads, vehicles traveling in both directions must stop. For a divided highway, with an unpaved space of five feet plus or raised median and/or physical barrier, vehicles behind the bus must stop. However, vehicles traveling in the opposite direction must proceed with caution.
Penalties for passing a stopped school bus include moving violation subject to citation, the requirement to complete a basic Driver Improvement Course upon conviction, four points on your driver license and a minimum fine of $165. If a vehicle passes on the side where children enter and exit, the driver will receive a minimum fine of $265.
Passing a stopped school bus and causing serious bodily injury or death can result in stiffer penalties, such as serving 120 community service hours in a trauma center or hospital, six points on your driver license, suspension of license for a minimum of one year, a $1,500 fine and the requirement to participate in a victim's impact panel session, or if such a panel does not exist, a Driver's Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle approved driver improvement course.
Such penalties for causing serious bodily injury or death are a result of the Cameron Mayhew Act, which took effect on July 1, 2017, in honor of Mayhew, who was killed by a motorist who failed to stop as he was walking toward a stopped school bus in 2016.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles provides tips that can save the lives of parents and children who are waiting roadside for an oncoming school bus:
At bus stops, children should wait in a safe place away from the road. Never sit on the roadway or curb while waiting for your bus.
Make sure your children know their bus driver's name and bus number. Tell children to never speak to strangers at the bus stop or get into the car with a stranger. If a stranger tries to talk to them or pick them up, tell children to inform a parent, bus driver or teacher at school.
Children should look both ways before crossing the street – look left, right and left again. Tell them to make eye contact to make sure the bus driver can see them as they cross the street.
Additionally, motorists should always be aware of their surroundings, especially when they see children near schools, bus stops, school buses and in school parking lots.
For more information about school bus safety, log onto flhsmv.gov.