Bus safety concerns could lead to changes

Monticello school transportation officials have been going over their bus routes with a fine-tooth comb in response to an Indiana incident that saw three children killed at a school bus stop last month.

The disregarding of a school bus stop arm –an illegal action that led to that tragedy – is not unique to our neighbors to the east.

“We average one stop arm run per week” Monticello Middle School Assistant Principal Denise Troester said of a high traffic student pickup point at Bridge and Railroad streets.

The situation is worse in front of Washington Elementary, where a bus that is required to drop off a special needs student near the sop entrance i s”run daily, sometimes by as many as 20 cars,” she added.

Troester told school board members on Nov. 14 that students are unloaded on the sidewalk side of the bus at Washington, but that illegal passes by motorists make it very dangerous for the exiting bus driver.

Transportation officials have resorted to using Washington Elementary Nancy Rosenbery as a human shield.

“Mrs. Rosenbery has placed her body in the middle of the street and stopped traffic to help us out in that area, but it’s a problem,” noted Troester, who along with Mary Habel of Illinois Central School Bus organizes the district bus routes.

The situation may be even more dangerous at the Bridge/N. Railroad Street stop, where between 7 and 9 students are picked up during the morning commute and 16 to 20 are dropped off after school, some of whom need to cross Bridge Street.

State law could actually help the district reduce that safety concern, since the longtime stop is not 1.5 miles from school, the threshold needed to require a school bus.

“The safest thing to do is probably to eliminate that stop,” said Superintendent Vic Zimmerman, adding that students would then either need a ride, or could walk. He noted those walking from the south side of Bridge Street would not need to cross over until Wilson Street, where there is a crossing guard. Those walking to Washington would have access to a crossing guard at Sage Drive in order to traverse Market Street.

But he quickly added that, as a pickup point that has been around for some three decades, a better option overall may be to find a way to make it safer.

Options vary, from moving the stop to adding another. The problem with moving it south is that students from the north side of Bridge Street would still need to cross the busy thoroughfare without the safety net of bus with flashing lights and stop arm extended.

Zimmerman was concerned with adding stops since they might also then be expected for other neighborhoods within the 1.5 mile limit.

“We can’t have these kids running across the road,” summarized board member Kevin Frye.

Mary Habel, the contract manager for Illinois Central School Bus, agreed it is an issue, even in the afternoon when traffic is lighter.

“In the afternoon, of those 16 to 20 kids that get off, seven of those kids have to cross the road in front of that bus to get back to the subdivision.”

An option being researched may find a way to pick up students on both sides of the street, a possibility that will be investigated by Troester and Habel.

In reviewing bus routes, Troester and Habel found nine routes that posed potential danger. Seven of those were addressed by changing the side of the street the bus picks up/drops off students, or by positioning the bus in rural areas to block the road while students are present.

Those convicted of illegally passing a stopped school bus face a $150 fine, which increases to $500 for a second offense, and the suspension of their driver’s license for three months.

Zimmerman said cameras for the stop arms are needed to better catch motorists, but that it would cost about $30,000.

All leased buses currently have two cameras, but they are inside of the vehicle with the goal of monitoring students, not passing drivers.

“$30,000 is a lot of money, but I also think that because this is an issue, and because drivers are reporting it is an issue of people running our stop arms, I think we should do it,” commented Zimmerman.

A longer stop arm with additional lighting is also a possibility. No decisions were made at the Nov. 14 school board meeting, but it is expected to be back on the agenda in December.

Troester said students are also being trained on safety precautions when getting onto and leaving school buses.

The National Safety Council offers these tips for drivers to help prevent another tragedy:

—Never pass a bus from behind — or from either direction if you’re on an undivided road — if it is stopped to load or unload children;

—If the yellow or red lights are flashing and the stop arm is extended, traffic must stop;

—The area 10 feet around a school bus is the most dangerous for children; stop far enough back to allow them space to safely enter and exit the bus;

—Be alert; children often are unpredictable, and they tend to ignore hazards and take risks.

No matter what precautions a school district like Monticello takes, Zimmerman noted safety still relies on motorists obeying when a stop arm is out.

“The thing about a stop arm on a school bus is it’s out because there are kids around, and if someone runs a stop arm and there is student in the road there is going to be tragedy that no one wants to live with the rest of their life, so that’s why we spent so much time discussing that specific stop,” he said about the Bridge Street location.

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