Until 1972, school busing in New York was a mostly unregulated enterprise. Although the state had driver training courses and programs dating back to the 1940s, there were no regulatory requirements for training. Anybody with a driver’s license was qualified to get behind the wheel of a 15-ton bus.
That all changed in the weeks, months and years following a ghastly school bus crash in Congers, New York, which claimed the lives of five students. The accident swiftly spurred substantial changes in bus construction standards and driver training and supervision. Several state agencies, including the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Education Department and Department of Transportation, implemented stricter regulation of the school bus industry. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for school buses, meanwhile, were created and implemented in 1977.
One of the biggest changes brought about by the Congers tragedy was legislation in 1974 that added Article 19-A: Special Requirements for Bus Drivers to the state’s Vehicle and Traffic Law. The provision created a battery of requirements for ongoing driver testing and observation.
According to the DMV website, Article 19-A requires
• Obtain a commercial driver’s license.
• Complete pre-employment and biennial medical examinations and any required follow-ups. These tests includes general physicals, drug screenings (both before employment and randomly during employment) and physical performance tests, in which prospective drivers must be able to complete a series of timed tasks, (e.g, running up and down the bus steps three times in 30 seconds, or draging 125 pounds 30 feet in 30 seconds, etc.).
• Submit pre-employment and annual driver license abstracts.
• Be fingerprinted for a New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services and Federal Bureau of Investigation criminal history review.
• Complete annual defensive driving observations.
• Complete biennial road tests.
• Complete biennial oral/written tests.
• Be appointed by the local board of education.
The whole process can take up to three months, according to Susan Stearns, a former bus driver who has headed up the transportation department at Marcellus Central School District in Onondaga County since 1999.
“New York has the highest standards in the country as far as drivers and safety equipment. There are a lot of entities and steps involved,” Stearns said. “Because of the liability and serious safety issues, you can’t be too careful. It’s a $100,000 vehicle filled with people’s children.”
Drivers are not regulators’ only target. The vehicles themselves also must pass muster. They’re given the once-over twice a day, with extensive pre-trip and post-trip checks before and after every single excursion, in which drivers check all lights, systems, emergency equipment, etc.
“Every time they take it out,” Stearns said.
A school district’s mechanics, meanwhile, are charged with managing long-term preventative maintenance. Typically, each bus will get a thorough examination every 30 to 45 days. Each bus then must pass a Department of Transportation inspection every six months.
Of the 50 million American children who attend school each day, more than half (26 million) ride a yellow school bus to campus. That translates to a whole lot of wheels covering an immense swath of territory. According to the American School Bus Council, some 480,000 school buses log an estimated 5.76 billion miles each year. In BH-BL, students are transported more than 870,000 miles each year.
In New York alone, school buses transport more than 2.3 million children to school every day, adding up to about 1.65 billion trips in the average school year.
Despite these massive numbers, a relatively small percentage of school vehicles are involved in traffic mishaps resulting in injuries. Part of that good safety record comes courtesy of simple physics: Large school buses are heavier and distribute crash forces differently — and more safely — than passenger cars and light trucks, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“School buses represent 25 percent of the miles traveled by
students but account for less than 4 percent of the injuries,”
reads a 2011 report by the Transportation Research Board, “The
Relative Risks of School Travel: A National Perspective and
Guidance for Local Community Risk Assessment.”
An even more important reason a school bus remains one of the safest ways to travel? Training. Not only for bus drivers, who must participate in a gauntlet of training sessions and tests before they can climb behind the wheel, but also for passengers — who must know how to safely approach, ride and exit a bus — and, last but not least, for other drivers on the road.
That last piece of the puzzle — other drivers — forms the centerpiece of the theme for this year’s National School Bus Safety Week (Oct. 20-24): “At my Stop, you Stop!”
Failure of other vehicles to come to a complete stop when a school bus halts to pick up or drop off children poses the greatest safety risk to student passengers, according to the National School Transportation Association, which since the early 1990s has organized National School Bus Safety Week each year during the third week of October.
A school bus employs an eight-light bus warning system to
signal other traffic about its movements. When a bus approaches
a loading or unloading area, yellow lights at the front and rear
of the vehicle will flash to warn other traffic to slow down.
Once the bus stops, its red lights flash and a “stop arm”
extends from the side of the vehicle.
Yellow, slow. Red, stop. Simple enough, right? Unfortunately, motorists passing stopped school buses remains a persistent problem in New York state and around the country.
In the last four years, 35 students in the state were hit by motorists passing stopped school buses and every day nearly 50,000 motor vehicles illegally pass school buses, according to the website, SafeNY.org. In 2004, a car illegally passing a school bus on the right side killed a 7-year-old girl in Central New York. In 2006, a New York City student was struck and killed as a car passed her school bus when she was crossing the street.
“‘Illegal passing’ has become an urgent concern in the pupil transportation industry,” according to the New York Association for Pupil Transportation (NYAPT).
Not only is stopping for school buses the right and safe thing to do. It’s the law.
The penalty for passing a stopped school bus ranges from a minimum fine of $250 for a first violation to a maximum of $1,000 for three violations in three years. Three convictions in three years? A driver’s license will be revoked for a minimum of six months, according to the New York state Department of Motor Vehicles [Section 1174, NYS Vehicle & Traffic Law].
“The reasons for the high rates of illegal passing are unknown but we suspect lack of knowledge of the law, driver distraction, driver error and more,” the NYAPT writes in a memorandum supporting a proposed New York bill that would create a dedicated fund for public/motorist education about illegal passing. “Clearly, there is a need for increased understanding of motorist attitudes and awareness of the law. Accordingly, every step must be taken to inform the public and increase that level of awareness.”
Another law being proposed in New York state would equip
school bus stop arms with cameras to assist in the apprehension
of illegal passers.
The National School Bus Safety Committee, made up of representatives from National School Transportation Association, National Association of Pupil Transportation, Pupil Transportation Safety Institute and National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, offers these school bus safety tips:
For more information about National School Bus Safety Week — or school bus safety, in general — please visit:
The National Association for Pupil Transportation: http://www.napt.org/
The National School Transportation Association: http://www.yellowbuses.org/
The Pupil Transportation Safety Institute: https://www.ptsi.org/?dp=index
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov/
Copyright 2014. Capital Region BOCES School Communications Portfolio; All rights reserved. For more information or permission to use, call 518-464-3960.