With about 2 million children riding school buses annually, Georgia has gone two years now without a student fatality in a bus accident. First lady Sandra Deal and Governor’s Office of Highway Safety Director Harris Blackwood are campaigning to make this a third consecutive fatality-free school year.
Deal, the wife of Gov. Nathan Deal, visited Julia P. Bryant Elementary School in Statesboro Tuesday with Blackwood and other officials as part of the school bus safety campaign. Behind her as she spoke in the school’s bus loading breezeway, Bulloch County’s school bus-driver trainers stood in line beside a big yellow bus.
The trainers have been brushing up on safety tips with other drivers and teaching bus safety to students, but Deal addressed her remarks to parents and the driving public.
“We’re back to remind people once again how important it is, when driving in particular, to make sure that we stop our cars and watch for these children,” Deal said. “It’s important to stop if you’re behind the bus, but it’s also important to stop in front of the bus, meeting the bus, because some of those children are crossing the street and you may not know it.”
When the bus lights flash yellow, that means “get ready for a stop,” and “when that stop sign goes out, that means stop!” she said.
Children, Deal added, need to be taught to sit quietly on the bus, to realize that while it’s OK to have quiet conversations they shouldn’t be moving around and distracting the driver. Children should also learn to wait for the bus at a safe distance from the street and not shove each other, which could cause a child to fall into the path of a vehicle.
“It’s a child’s responsibility, but it’s a parent’s responsibility to teach their children,” she said.
Children, she said, should also be taught to watch for traffic and not count on every driver to do the right thing and stop.
Blackwood said Deal brings her sense of responsibility as a teacher, mother and grandmother to programs about children’s safety. Each person who spoke stood at a lectern painted to look like the front part of a school bus. Blackwood and Mrs. Deal had presented it to the Bulloch school system on their last similar visit in October 2013.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are on the verge of a third year without fatalities from buses,” Blackwood said Tuesday. “We want that to happen. We’re pushing for zero, not on that side of the door (meaning inside the school) but on this side of the door, we want a zero.”
He called Georgia State Patrol Capt. Billy Hitchens to the lectern to emphasize that passing stopped school buses is serious offense.
All lanes must stop
A Governor’s Office of Highway Safety publication explains the law. When a bus has its red lights flashing and its stop arm extended to load or unload passengers, vehicles approaching the bus from the opposite direction are required to stop, as well as those behind the bus. This is the case not just on two-lane roads, but on multi-lane streets and highways as long as there is no median or central barrier.
On a paved five-lane highway with a center turn lane, even the drivers in the lane of opposing traffic four lanes from a bus are required to stop.
On roads with a central barrier or unpaved median, drivers in opposing lanes are not required to stop, but are advised to approach school buses with caution. The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety advises drivers to wait until all passengers getting off a bus are 12 feet off the roadway before proceeding.
The Bulloch County Schools are now in the third week of their 2016-17 term, with 10,483 students in the 15 regular campuses and two alternative programs as of Friday. More than 5,000 of those students ride the buses to and from school each day.
The school system employs 113 drivers, 17 bus monitors, seven mechanics and 21 other maintenance personnel to operate and maintain the buses.
Training for kids
Before Tuesday’s press conference, all of JPB Elementary School’s almost 800 students participated in bus safety training conducted by a core group of 10 drivers, who also serve as trainers for the other bus drivers. JPB was the second of nine schools – all of the elementary schools – where the driver-trainers will teach safety classes, said Elizabeth Byrd, the Bulloch County school system’s transportation safety coordinator.
A 27-year school transportation employee, Byrd drives a bus each morning and afternoon and has an office in the middle of the day.
The safety program for children starts with a puppet show. Then the drivers put the children on a bus and show them how to evacuate in an emergency, using the otherwise forbidden back door. Then cones are set out around the bus as children learn about the danger zone, to stay clear of the bus and approaching cars.
Middle and high school students watch a bus safety video instead.
Byrd said she doesn’t have a lot of drivers illegally pass her bus, but she knows where it happens.
“Other drivers do,” she said. “On my route I don’t see a whole lot of it, but it does happen. Mostly, around the college campus, that’s where we see most of it, like on that Lanier Drive, that’s where we see most of it, passing buses.”
Despite some dangerous actions by motorists, the Bulloch County Schools have not had any students struck while loading or unloading this year or last.
However, an 82-year-old passenger in a car died when the car slammed into a Bulloch County school bus on Georgia Highway 25 near Rocky Ford Road in March. In another incident, the driver of an 18-wheeler was charged with following too closely after plowing into the back of a bus, stopping at railroad tracks as school bus drivers are required to do, in February.
Since school started back, two relatively minor accidents involving school buses have been reported, with no student injuries. Bulloch County’s buses travel more than 1 million miles each school year.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.