Let’s take a break from politics, considering we’re about to get our fill of it for the next 15 months. Instead, let’s talk about a topic where we all can agree: When the school bus stops, we stop.
Well, apparently not everyone agrees. On April 17, Arkansas school bus drivers counted 589 motorists who illegally sped past their bus while it was stopped with red lights flashing. Only about a third of the state’s school bus drivers participated in the survey, so the actual number of drive-bys was much higher.
This is not simply a traffic offense. After Bryant elementary student Isaac Brian was killed in 2004, the Legislature passed Isaac’s Law the next year. Any motorist who illegally passes a school bus – even if nothing happens and everyone is OK – is guilty of a misdemeanor. If convicted, you can go to jail for 90 days, lose your driver’s license for a year, be assigned up to 400 hours of community service, and pay a fine of up to $1,000. Drivers who kill a student, as happened most recently in Arkansas in 2007, are guilty of negligent homicide, a class C felony. That student’s name was Elizabeth Cimprich, she attended classes at Watson Chapel, and she was 14 years old.
Granted, all of us drivers can have a careless moment – especially when we’re in a hurry, which is pretty much all the time these days.
But there really is no good excuse. Of those 589 illegal passings, 445 involved drivers approaching the bus from the front, which is bad enough. The other 144 passed from behind. It’s illegal to establish a bus stop on a four-lane, so those drivers had to pull into the turning lane or opposite lane, ignore the stop sign on the bus’s side, and drive past. Eleven drivers passed on the right, which means they drove onto the shoulder and past the school bus door.
Mike Simmons, senior transportation manager for the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, is leading a "Flashing Red. Kids Ahead." campaign the rest of this month to call attention to the problem of illegal passings.
Simmons said not much has changed during his 13 years on the job. People get in a hurry today like they did then. "Honestly, part of it is just our society today is not willing to wait," he said. "I mean, you see people just busting it to get past a school bus because they know once you get behind that school bus, it’s going to be stopping."
It should be noted that school buses are the safest way to transport a student, statistically speaking. Every day, almost 7,000 Arkansas school buses transport 260,000 students across 250,000 miles of roadways, usually without incident. In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences and other groups reported that of the 800 school-age children killed every year in motor vehicle crashes during normal school travel hours, only 20 were school bus-related, and only five of those occurred while the student was on the bus. The other 15 occurred while the student was a pedestrian, which is how Isaac Brian and Elizabeth Cimprich died.
Remember a few paragraphs ago when I listed all those scary things that can happen to us if we’re caught illegally passing a school bus? That’s the law. The reality is, school bus drivers usually are too busy taking care of kids to record the license plate of a speeding car. So this is one we can probably get away with most of the time.
Instead, it’s our personal responsibility to remember, especially when we are in a hurry, what flashing red lights on a school bus mean. Someone’s son or daughter is nearby, walking somewhere close to the street, and trying to get to school, or to home.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.