On May 12, Evelyn Gurney was about to climb the steps to board her school bus when a pickup truck driver attempting to pass the bus struck her.
Evelyn, a 13-year-old with a passion for hockey and animals from Excelsior, Wisc., died at the scene.
Her death has sent shockwaves through the small town of about 1,700 and prompted several fundraisers to support Evelyn’s family. One online fundraiser that aimed to raise $1,000 had raised more than $96,000 as of early May 24.
“She’s just a super kid, worked really, really hard. Everything that she got, you know, she earned,” Evelyn’s track coach said at a memorial event on May 23. “She exemplifies everything positive that we would want out of a student.”
Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-familiar story.
An average of about six students across the country each year were killed while attempting to board or get off of their school buses from 2012 to 2021, according to the National School Bus Loading and Unloading Survey. The number of injuries and near misses is believed to be much larger.
Often, the crashes happen when drivers illegally pass buses—which happens an estimated 42 million times across the country each school year, according to one survey by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation—disregarding stop arms and flashing lights that signal children are being picked up or dropped off.
A tiny fraction of those illegal passings end in children being hurt or killed, but each one is a threat to students’ safety, said Ronna Weber, executive director of NASDPT.
“It’s the biggest safety issue, bar none, that faces school transportation,” Weber said.
In the days following the crash that killed Evelyn Gurney in Wisconsin, the National Transportation Safety Board announced it had launched an independent investigation, in part, to analyze how motorists respond to stopped school buses and what technology could be used to reduce crashes when students are boarding or disembarking.
A preliminary report is expected in the coming weeks.
A focus on education
The biggest problem, Weber said, is drivers’ ignorance.
Often, motorists claim to be unaware that the maneuver is dangerous, even though passing a school bus that has its stop arm extended and red flashing lights on is illegal in every state, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
That’s not to say the laws are uniform, though. Some states require drivers to stop on the other side of a divided highway, while others don’t, for example, which can be confusing for drivers, especially as they travel to different states, Weber said.
“They don’t always know what the rules are, and that’s a problem. It always puts a child at risk,” she said.
Because the federal government has limited jurisdiction over local and state roads, there won’t be a uniform, nationwide law. But there could be a more robust nationwide education campaign about the rules of the road and the risks of passing stopped school buses, said Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association.
During the last week of April, NSTA representatives met with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to advocate for a campaign reminiscent of the “click it or ticket” push begun in the 1990s that encouraged drivers and passengers to wear seat belts. The campaign is generally regarded as successful in raising awareness about seat belts’ importance.
“We’re envisioning this robust campaign where the airwaves are inundated with the information and the message that this is not only illegal but extremely dangerous,” Macysyn said. “We can’t just rely on people to seek out this information, we have to really hit them with it.”
Prevention and enforcement
Unable to launch a national awareness campaign on their own, some school districts are taking extra steps to prevent illegal passings and alert police of violations when they happen.
Some, including a district in West Virginia, have tried installing even longer stop-arms that reach out 5 feet from the bus into the opposite lane and have flashing red lights on them.
More commonly, others have invested in installing cameras on their bus fleets that capture images and videos of vehicles that pass buses illegally. Then, those drivers are usually issued fines (the amount varies state to state) via mail.
The cameras are a “critical piece in the equation,” Weber said, because it can be difficult—if not impossible—for drivers to get all of the information about a vehicle that passes a bus the moment it happens in order to report it to police. Without a bus camera, drivers would have to record the car’s license plate, make, model, and color; the time of the violation; and where it happened all on their own and within just a few seconds. That’s on top of trying to watch the children and other surroundings to make sure they’re safe.
“It’s very difficult to get enough information to pass on to law enforcement to be able to do anything about it, but, otherwise, enforcement is almost non-existent,” Weber said.
The problem, Weber said, is that the cameras do little to educate and proactively discourage dangerous driving around school buses. It’s more reactive. Hopefully, drivers who are caught and fined think twice about passing a stopped bus again, but that still leaves millions of kids at risk, Weber said.
“The school transportation community moves about 25 million children every day to and from school, so if you think about that number of children who are boarding and exiting a bus every day, getting on and off to go to school and home from school, that’s a lot of points where they’re really vulnerable,” Weber said.
And even when a driver is caught and fined, it may not be enough to keep them from doing it again, Macysyn said. It may be more effective for the violations to carry penalties that are reflected on a person’s driving record.
“It has to have that kind of level of stigma attached to it instead of, ‘Oh, yeah, I just kind of made a mistake,’ ” he said. “They need to be like, ‘No, you made a potentially critical mistake, and you need to understand the consequences,’ and I’m not sure that’s happening with the way these things are adjudicated across the 50 states.”
What schools can do
There are too many factors for districts to address the problem on their own, Weber and Macysyn said, and it will take buy-in from other agencies at the local, state, and national levels to make a significant difference.
But schools can help.
Realistically, the most effective step schools can take is to raise awareness about bus safety rules as clearly and as often as possible.
As students prepare to return from summer break, schools can carry out local awareness campaigns. They should distribute fliers about bus safety and post the local rules to their websites and social media pages, Weber said. That should be repeated around National School Bus Safety Week in October, and periodically throughout the year. The more people schools reach, the better, she said.
It’s also important to teach students about how to be safe pedestrians, Macysyn added. That could include reminders about staying on sidewalks when available, being aware of their surroundings, and waiting for the bus driver to tell them when to board and disembark.
“The child is a pedestrian, so we have to teach them to also be on the lookout,” Macysyn said. “We know that just because the rules are in place doesn’t mean people are following them.”