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Published: Sunday, 4/24/2005

Drivers ignore school bus safety

BY ERIKA RAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Flashing lights and an extended stop sign are the signals for traffic to stop so children can safely cross the road after exiting an Oregon school bus. Flashing lights and an extended stop sign are the signals for traffic to stop so children can safely cross the road after exiting an Oregon school bus.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

Michael Cline said it happens about once every school day.

The Perrysburg schools superintendent said his district's bus drivers report that motorists - "shockingly" and with "great regularity" - ignore warning lights and side-mount stop signs on stopped school buses

The scary part for parents is that Perrysburg, which has a fleet of 35 buses that travel a total of 2,438 miles a day, is not alone. Bus drivers, superintendents, and transportation directors in 15 other area school districts interviewed by The Blade agreed that motorists break the law more frequently than people may think.

But driving past a bus with its warning lights activated can have fatal consequences. A 5-year-old Oregon boy was killed last month on his way home from kindergarten when a woman who said she was distracted by her cell phone drove past a school bus' warning lights.

Dameatrius McCreary had just stepped off a school bus and was attempting to cross Starr Avenue to get home when he was hit by a car driven by Angelique M. Dipman, 27, of Ottawa County's Clay Township, who told police that she saw the school bus but not its red warning lights.

There were 14 other violations by motorists involving Oregon school buses between September and early March, seven resulting in citations, according to Oregon police Sgt. Ken Reno.

A student keeps an eye on a moving truck after exiting a school bus on Curtice EW Road in Curtice, Ohio, while the bus driver signals the driver of the truck to stop. A student keeps an eye on a moving truck after exiting a school bus on Curtice EW Road in Curtice, Ohio, while the bus driver signals the driver of the truck to stop.
RUGGIERO Enlarge

Toledo Municipal Court records indicate three traffic violations involving school buses have been reported so far this year. There were 22 in 2004, down substantially from 120 in 2003. The court handles traffic cases in Toledo, Ottawa Hills, and Washington Township.

Sandy Krytus, who has been a bus driver for Northwood

Local Schools for 12 years, said the majority of violations occur when motorists try to get past the bus before the red warning lights are activated.

"You always have a few that perceive that their time is more precious than the students' welfare," she said. "They think they have that last couple of seconds to get by so they don't have to wait."

But even with hundreds of buses carrying tens of thousands of students twice a day in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, fatal accidents like the one in Oregon are rare in this area. It has been well over four years since the last such accident in this area: A 14-year-old Clinton Township, Mich., student was struck by a cement truck after getting off a bus.

"The safest way to transport children is the school bus," Sylvania City Schools Superintendent Brad Rieger said.

Soon after the Oregon accident, representatives of almost all of the 16 area school districts contacted by The Blade held special meetings to review procedures with their bus drivers to make sure everyone was consistently following the rules. Districts contacted included Bedford, Defiance, Findlay, Fremont, Genoa, Lake, Maumee, Monroe, Northwood, Oregon, Perrysburg, Rossford, Springfield, Sylvania, Toledo, and Washington Local.

Jim Marquis, transportation supervisor for the Fremont City Schools, whose buses transport about 3,600 students each day, said he felt it was "important for us to revisit the issue one more time."

Because officials from all districts contacted said they already were following state guidelines for bus safety, some schools made only minor tweaks to procedures in the wake of the Oregon fatality.

Genoa Area school officials modified several bus drop-off locations so students from kindergarten through fourth grade wouldn't have to cross Genoa-Clay Center Road, which is one of the district's busiest roads, Genoa Transportation Director Mike Weis said.

"We have way too many people who don't pay attention to school lights," he said, adding that bus drivers driving the district's nine buses see an average of one motorist a week who violates the law.

No other district contacted - including Oregon City Schools - significantly changed its procedures after the accident.

"I have total confidence in our system and our bus drivers' training," Oregon Superintendent John Hall said. "We constantly review all bases of our operation and that's not going to stop with this tragedy."

Mr. Hall declined to answer questions about the district's actions verbally. Instead, the district prepared a statement with answers to each of The Blade's questions that was faxed to the newspaper several days later. When a reporter asked for a clarification on a few of the answers, Mr. Hall, who was out of the office and then went on vacation last week, said the typed answers would have to suffice.

All 16 districts contacted have some children who cross in front of buses to get on or off, and many reported having lengthy discussions on their safety procedures after Dameatrius' death.

The boy's grandmother, Colleen Gamble, told Oregon City Council Monday at a committee meeting that students "should never have to walk across a busy street alone."

Starr Avenue, between Wheeling Street and Coy Road - where Dameatrius resided - is a major artery in Oregon used by about 8,000 vehicles daily, according to 2003 statistics.

School representatives said they try to avoid having students cross any roads - especially busier roads.

"We try to make every effort to drop off students where they're getting off on the door side," Northwood Superintendent Ron Matter said. "On any of our major roads, the students are being dropped off on the home side."

Whether or not they have to cross a street to get home, officials from all districts said bus safety is taught in their classrooms, on the buses themselves, and during summer safety programs that are put on by area police departments.

The buses themselves come equipped with safety devices, including radios and cameras designed to monitor student behavior. Toledo Public Schools, the region's largest district, which transports just under 9,000 students on buses every day, plans to add new radios and cameras as well as global positioning satellite systems to its buses this summer.

School districts in both Michigan and Ohio have the option of adding a gate that extends from a bus's front bumper and prevents a child from crossing the street in front of the bus until the gate is retracted. Many bus manufacturers are including the gates as a feature on new buses.

However, Lt. David Ford of the Michigan State Police and Sgt. Stephanie Norman, an Ohio Highway Patrol spokesman, said they could not identify any school districts in Michigan or Ohio that use the gates.

None of the 16 districts contacted uses parents or other volunteers to help students get on or off buses, though Rossford has a monitor who daily rides one of its 26 buses to train new students on bus safety procedures and monitor behavior.

Parents should play a role in bus safety by helping train students to ride the bus safely and by waiting at stops, school officials said. There have been at least two instances since 1998 in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan in which students were killed waiting for a school bus and at least two instances since 1999 in which students were killed while running to catch a school bus.

"Our policy states that we believe the parents should assume some responsibility for getting the student to the stop and from the stop, and assisting in the crossing of streets," Fremont's Mr. Marquis said.

School representatives said there always will be those motorists who break the law. When they see it happen, bus drivers are trained to get the license plate number of the offending vehicle to give to local law enforcement.

Because they are criminal offenses, the driver - not the registered owner of the vehicle - is cited, said Lt. Kevin Keel, head of the Toledo police traffic section.

Getting a license plate number, however, is not always easy, bus drivers said.

"The very nature of the offense is the driver is trying to speed by," Ms. Krytus said.

The Northwood bus driver said that if she is successful in getting a license plate number, it is often from reading from the front plate. That's one of the main reasons the Ohio Highway Patrol opposes proposed legislation to eliminate front license plates, said spokesman Lt. Rick Zwayer.

Michigan vehicles are not required to have front license plates, making it more difficult for bus drivers there to identify motorists who fail to stop for flashing signals.

Ron Smith, transportation director for Monroe Public Schools, the largest school district in Monroe County, said his drivers have seen a marked increase in incidents in which motorists drive through bus warning lights.

"I had a situation personally where I was stopped while approaching a bus, and I had a car go around me and pass the bus right in front of me," he said. "I think a lot of younger drivers just aren't educated anymore in the procedures for school buses."

Though they believe they have adequate school bus safety measures in place, school representatives agree that motorists need to do their part when they're around school buses carrying children.

"The responsibility lies with the driver for keeping those laws," Ms. Krytus said. "The bottom line is, a child's life is at stake."

Blade Staff Writers Christina Hall, Mike Jones, Ignazio Messina, Larry P. Vellequette, Vanessa Winans, and Rachel Zinn contributed to this report.

Contact Erika Ray at:

eray@theblade.com

or 419-724-6088.



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