LC Valley officials see dangerous number of school bus incidents
LEWISTON, ID- It’s a danger children across the country are facing when just trying to go to and from school. The danger: drivers not paying attention, being impatient, or just not knowing the law at bus stops. Bus drivers and police KLEW spoke with say if people aren’t careful behind the wheel, a child is bound to get hurt.
It's an everyday thing most kids do when coming home from school, crossing the street. But from time to time, a driver comes within inches of a child's life.
"I see someone run my stop paddle and my red light flashing at least once a week. It happens all the time," says Clarkston School District bus driver Justin “JJ” Rinard.
Rinard has been driving school buses in Clarkston for a decade. He says at least once a week he witnesses someone who doesn't stop when a child is loading and unloading his bus.
"They're our future, you know. We're taking our future kids to school. It's our future leaders. It's really important to keep all these kids safe because when they get to the bus, they feel safe," he says.
Bus drivers aren't alone. In March 2013, a 5th grader was hit by a vehicle in Clarkston trying to cross the street after getting off the school bus.
"It didn't hurt that bad. Just hurt my lower back," said the boy at the time.
The driver didn't stop at the bus's stop paddle. It’s a problem that’s valley-wide.
"I'm guessing there's probably more than three a month and less than six a month. But that's a substantial number,” says Leon Hall, Lewiston School District Transportation Supervisor. “Oh it's upsetting. It's terribly upsetting."
Hall oversees bus drivers who take around 1,500 kids on school buses each day.
"We're in the safety business. And everything we do is revolved around safety,” says Hall.
A key factor for drivers not stopping when this stop paddle is out is drivers busy with their cell phones, according to bus drivers.
"Totally the leading factor. Probably eighty percent of them in these situation are on their phone,” says Clarkston bus driver Michael Hoffman.
"It's just someone who has tunnel vision on, and they're not looking around them at all. They're just looking down the road and they're just driving,” says Rinard.
In Washington, it's illegal to hold a phone while driving, let alone talk or text. In Idaho, you can do everything with a phone, but not text.
But bus drivers also take notes. When a driver doesn't follow the law, they'll take down the car's information, including make and model, license plate number, and the driver's description. That info is passed on to police.
"I will take it, I will run a plate if they can get a plate off the vehicle, we'll find out who the vehicle belongs to and then we'll track them down, find out who was driving, and we'll talk to them about it," says Clarkston School District School Resource Officer John Morbeck.
Morbeck says he receives around three to six complaints per week. He tries to talk to those they can identify.
"Sometimes it's education. One of the girls I talked to was having continuing problems with understanding that you don't stop right up next to the stop sign on the bus. Sometimes I'll actually ticket people for it," says Morbeck.
The ticket price in Washington is $76 dollars, and can be upgraded to reckless driving. In Idaho it's a misdemeanor with fines between $100 and $500.
There's another piece of technology Clarkston bus drivers could really use.
"Maybe put a camera right in here [under the paddle] just to get the people that do run the stop paddles,” says Rinard.
It’s something Lewiston has had on buses for four years.
"We started video-taping forward so we could see cars come through the stop arms. To get a good picture of the car, and get a good description of the car, and quite often the license plate number,” says Hall.
In addition to technology, there's also extensive training. Bus drivers are required to part take in regular meetings that focus on safety issues. Clarkston bus drivers have developed a method they believe is working.
“I make sure the kids stop and look at me. I don't even let them cross until they look up and see
me. Even if there are no cars coming at all,” says Rinard.
But even then, it's a difficult situation to watch over.
“As the child crosses like that, I've actually seen hesitation in the driver to then move it forward towards the child, and that's been a scary situation suddenly,” says Hoffman.
So that begs the question, what can be done to keep children safe?
"Do you need a siren to go off when these kids cross? Do you need something to grab their attention?" says Hoffman.
"There is no reason for you to be in that big a hurry that you would have to go around a bus like that,” says Morbeck.
“We've been lucky, but it only takes one,” says Hall.
"Somebody is going to get killed coming off the bus. It's just a matter of time. It would be a tragic event. But it's going to happen,” says Hoffman.
It's illegal in all 50 states to pass a school bus when its stop sign is extended and its lights are flashing.
A survey conducted during the 2017-2018 school year found more than 15 million Americans illegally passed school buses. That's nearly 85,000 incidents a school day.