School districts across Illinois are looking for ways to improve student safety in the wake of a rash of children killed while waiting for buses to pick them up.
In a span of three days in early November, five children were killed by distracted drivers while crossing streets to board the bus. In each case, the school bus had extended its “stop arm,” which in most states requires drivers to stop for children crossing the street.
Some members of the Highland Unit District 5 school board think cameras may be the answer to getting drivers to think twice before ignoring the bus stop signs.
Monday night at the monthly school board meeting, Superintendent Mike Sutton proposed the purchase of roughly $9,800 in cameras for the district’s 34 buses. The cameras would be additions to the units already installed on the First Student buses the school uses day-to-day.
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“It would be on the back of the bus faced forward so that it catches the stop arm out and it would catch the car that is violating the stop arm,” Sutton said.
Sutton said while there have been no serious accidents where a child was hurt, bus drivers have said drivers ignoring the stop arm is a regular occurrence and close calls happen.
In total, according to a 2015 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, less than 1 percent of roughly 325,000 fatal crashes in the U.S. from 2006 to 2015 have involved school transportation. However, reports that more than one-third, or 103, school-aged students died on foot, some even hit by the school buses themselves.
Data also shows that drivers, on average, routinely pass stopped school buses with an extended arm. During the school year, in a single day, 20 percent of drivers reported roughly 84,000 cars illegally passed their bus, according to NASDPTS’s report. The report surveyed drivers in 38 states and in the District of Columbia.
In Illinois, according to research by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, the number of drivers who violate stop arms is higher than the national average, with 62 percent of motorists ignoring the signals.
Highland board member Zach Lewis said drivers ignoring the stop arms are rampant in more rural areas. However, he said, drivers in rural areas sometimes angle buses to block both sides of the street while letting students off, something buses in city limits may not be able to do.
Board member Rene’ Friedel said the issue comes down to drivers not knowing or not caring. She said too often drivers assume which direction students will go after they get off the bus and ignore the stop arm.
“They assume, which is the worst thing they can do,” Rene’ said. “I think sometimes it’s on the drivers not understanding what the child’s going to do.”
However, board member Robert Miller said he wasn’t sure what good the cameras would do to make bus stops safer. He said if the district was going to spend money, seatbelts on the buses might be the better purchase.
“What’s the problem we’re trying to solve here? Is it to keep kids from getting hit? Is it to reduce accidents and injuries or is it to punish people who break the law because stupid people are pulling around buses who would do that to begin with?” Miller said
Miller said he worries the heightened coverage of a cluster of incidents may lead to the district spending money to make buses appear to be safer, while not actually making students safer.
“There’s been a lot of publicity on this in the past few weeks but overall, in the past 10 years, it doesn’t seem to be a huge number of people,” Miller said. “Of course, one is too many, but given the amount of people killed in rollover accidents (on buses) maybe our money is best put elsewhere.”
Sutton argued installing the cameras and making sure violators were reported to police could deter others from ignoring the stop arms. He said a $500 fine might be the ticket to solving making sure others don’t make the same mistake and, in turn, make students boarding buses safer.
“They (Highland Police) assured me that if we bring them a video that has the stop arm out and a car violating that stop they would absolutely pursue that,” Sutton said. “That may be the reason somebody else doesn’t run the stop sign if you’re setting examples by giving $500 fines to people who do this.”
Miller suggested the district Highland police shadow the school’s buses on a trial basis to see how much of a problem it is and make their presence known when students get off the bus.
Highland joins the likes of Yorkville School District, Lake Central School District and the City of Macomb, school districts and municipalities that share Sutton’s concerns about bus stop safety.
In Yorkville, the school district has started a pilot program where cameras were approved to be installed on district buses, the Kendall County Record reports. Cameras will be installed on the district’s 120 buses at roughly $330 each.
In Lake Central, the school district is considering installing cameras and now require drivers to report license numbers and descriptions of any cars violating stop arms.
More akin to Miller’s suggestion, police officers in Macomb began earlier this month escorting randomly chosen school buses in order to catch offenders, according to WQAD-TV.
Highland Unit District 5 board members plan to discuss the purchase of the cameras at their next meeting. In the meantime, they’ve given Sutton the go-ahead to further research the issue. The next meeting of the Highland school board will be Monday, Dec. 17.