The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says school buses are the safest vehicles on the road on any given day, asserting that bus travel is 70 times safer than riding in a passenger car.
That’s worth noting as we celebrate National Bus Safety Week in St. Mary’s County and across the country.
Drivers don’t get paid a fortune, and have workdays with a big time gap between their morning and afternoon runs. So why do they do it? Mainly because bus drivers care about their cargo. Many of them are hauling their second and even third generation of students to and from school.
This year’s theme for the celebratory week is “My School Bus: The Safest Form of Transportation.” Some school districts in the United States have required seat belts for buses, but that has not been deemed necessary in Southern Maryland. Because of their high seats and rugged construction, and because buses aren’t seen rolling down our roads at 70 mph or more, what we have in place is fine. Seat belts are the law of the land for other passenger vehicles, of course — except in New Hampshire, for some reason.
Maryland school buses, while stopping short of the expense of universally installing seat belts, have kept with the times to keep children safe on the roads. Apart from the red and amber lights, the stop arms have been added, along with a strobe light on the roof. That safety enhancement came after a fatal crash in 1997 in which a school bus on the Eastern Shore was struck by a tractor-trailer running through an intersection in a dense morning fog. The bus driver was killed and 28 children were injured, prompting the additional safety light to become standard equipment.
Earlier this month in St. Mary’s, the school board was shown a video emphasizing bus safety. “In no other career do you have to manage children with your back turned,” the school system’s director of transportation, Jeff Thompson, said.
State law requires drivers to stop at least 20 feet behind a bus with its red lights flashing and stop arm extended. Vehicles coming from the other direction must also stop; the only exception is if the bus is on the other side of a hard median strip. Failure to do so can result in a $570 fine and 3 points on a driver’s license.
A total of 3,194 violations for vehicles not stoping for school bus stop arms were recorded by bus drivers across Maryland on a single day in April in a statewide survey conducted by the Maryland State Department of Education, compared to 3,812 observed violations in 2018 and 3,384 in 2017. This year’s drop followed several years of increased reported violations, and shows a significant decrease from the 7,011 recorded violations in 2011.
MSDE coordinated the survey in April in collaboration with school transportation directors in all 24 school systems as a snapshot of illegal activity on the roads. More than 80% of Maryland school bus drivers took part in the survey. The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services coordinates surveys of this type in all 50 states.
“More than 641,000 of our students ride school buses in Maryland,” said Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in a proclamation for Bus Safety Week. “As community members, we must work together to ensure our children are safe getting to and from school. I encourage our residents and visitors to our state to pay attention when driving, especially in school zones and school bus stops, and to stop when the bus stops.”
The governor said nearly 7,300 school buses travel Maryland’s roads, covering more than 125.5 million miles during the school year.
If even one child were injured because a motorist failed to obey the law regarding school buses, that would be one too many. Distracted driving, now often due to cellphones, is to blame for more and more accidents. There’s no excuse for that, and there’s certainly no excuse not to see — and to be patient enough to wait for — a school bus with its lights flashing and stop arm extended. Pay attention and help keep children safe, every day.