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Your District Needs a Bus-Safety Plan

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It was the second day of school. Michelle, age 5, a 1st grader, stepped from the school bus. Home was in sight. Her older brother walked toward the rear of the bus to cross. Michelle, perhaps vaguely remembering earlier being given instructions, began to cross in front. Safety was only eight feet away. Horrified eye witnesses recall seeing Michelle trying to hold the bus back as it began to move.

As president of our local board of education, I received a call to come to the hospital, where I learned we had suffered a "school-bus fatality.'' That phrase is impersonal, easier to say than Michelle, an angel of a little girl, was run over by the right front tire of our school bus.

Statistics indicate that nationally there are about 50 to 75 deaths each year involving school-bus crossings. Considering the multitude of such crossings that take place daily, that is perhaps an amazingly good record. But it also may explain why so little attention is focused by school leaders on training students and staff members to cross safely.

I believe there is a serious deficiency nationwide in training for school-bus crossings. And I can easily demonstrate to you why. The next time your car is stopped facing a school bus, simply observe what happens. You will be able to see for yourself that crossings are seldom done safely.

Our district completed a study after Michelle's death. It indicated that most bus-crossing accidents that result in deaths involve children between the ages of 5 and 8 who, like Michelle, are crossing in front of the bus. Danger, however, exists 10 feet around the perimeter of the bus, an area experts call the "death zone.'' A movie we obtained depicting fatal bus accidents shows a teenage girl climbing up a snow bank after departing a bus. The bank gives way and she is caught under the bus's back wheels. Another particularly poignant accident in the film involves a little girl who crosses safely, is practically in her mother's arms, then realizes she has dropped an Easter card. When she runs back to retrieve the card, she is killed.

As part of our study, I rode the school bus myself to gain first-hand experience. My first ride was letter perfect, with one of our regular bus drivers maintaining perfect discipline and control. The driver knew all the stops and all the procedures. My second trip, though, was not so reassuring. It was with a substitute driver on a contract bus on a rainy and dark day. That driver had little control over the students and was unsure of the stops. Older students, as a form of amusement, shouted out misleading instructions, and the bus jerked to a stop at several wrong locations.

My experience gave me new respect for bus drivers and the responsibility they bear.

Our board studied bus-safety problems for months. We considered and abandoned options such as full-time bus aides for all busses, on-board safety patrol, and right-hand-only drops. While our plan was being developed, we employed full-time bus aides. Once it was completed, we were ready with our model program. It consisted of the following actions:

First, we enhanced classroom instruction, initiated bus drills, and employed bus aides.

The curriculum we use for instruction puts the responsibility for knowing the proper and safe method of crossing in the hands of both driver and student. Students are taught to exit the bus and walk at least 10 feet away from the front of the bus, so that they will be in the driver's line of vision. Bus drivers learn that, once they determine that all traffic has stopped, they should hand-signal the exiting children to move. At the point where traffic can be seen, the child stops, looks in both directions, and, once reassured that all traffic has stopped, completes the crossing.

To reinforce classroom teaching, we initiated drills in the parking lot that simulate crossing conditions. Fire drills are required at all schools; why aren't bus-crossing drills?

Bus aides reinforce classroom study and drills. Their role is not to cross with the children, but to see that they cross correctly. The aides ride with the kindergarten students for the first few months. Thereafter, they rotate on all buses to reinforce training. One of the bonuses of this plan is that aides can be shifted for use in situations in which substitute drivers are uncertain of stops.

We also discovered that, while our buses complied with state requirements for mirrors, there were still some "blind spots.'' Additional mirrors and lighted, eye-level stop lights that swing out at each stop were installed on the buses. We also installed radios to be used in the event of an accident, a fire, or a child's being on the wrong bus.

The most significant action we took was the installation of a mechanical 10-foot arm mounted on the bumper of the bus that extends automatically when the door is opened. In order to cross, the child must walk to the end of the the extended arm and be in visual contact with the driver.

Our existing school-bus-driver instructional program was given heightened scrutiny and importance. We discovered, however, that there was not a state-mandated program of this kind.

Today, I have one goal in this area, and it is very simple: institution of a state-mandated curriculum that includes bus drills; training aides; validated school-bus-driver training that promotes proper crossing procedures, discipline, and sensitivity to the precious cargo these employees transport. I also want required mechanical arms on school buses to move our children out of the "death zone.''

These improvements could be accomplished by regulations from state departments of education or by laws from state legislatures. Requirements already are in place in most states for the color yellow on buses, flashing lights, mirrors, and high-back seats. The technology is there for greater safety; the experience is there. The will, apparently, is not. The public, the politicians, and the people who run schools must be informed and mobilized.

What are you doing about school-bus safety? Together, we could save children's lives.

William Parkhurst 3rd is a farm-supply dealer in Hammonton, N.J., and is a former member and president of the local board of education.

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