Survey shows drivers ignore stopped school buses

On Wednesday, seven buses will line up in front of Whittier School in Wheaton waiting to give both seasoned fifth-graders and awe-struck first-graders a ride home after the start of classes.

Each bus will flash its lights and extend a stop sign as kids board. And inevitably, drivers will speed by, oblivious.

“I'll hear bus drivers honking and still people will whiz right through all seven buses there,” said Bill Farley, Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 assistant superintendent for business operations. “It astounds me. These are yellow school buses with flashing lights and they're not drawing attention.”

Wheaton's not alone. A survey conducted in 29 states by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services found 85,279 stop-arm violations in a one-day test conducted this spring.

Among the bus drivers counting scofflaws was Mike Nilson, who shepherds teens around for Fenton High School District 100. He's seen it all.

“One of my bus stops is on Irving Park Road in Wood Dale and — I kid you not — at least twice each day one or more vehicles at a time go through my stop arm,” Nilson said via email.

“I sometimes wonder if it is because people are in so much of a hurry that they don't care, or if it is that people are not taught the proper procedure on what to do. Irving Park Road is a four-lane road, so drivers going in the opposite direction of my bus do not need to stop (on a two-lane road they must), but drivers stop all the time, which then snarls traffic going the other way.

“I've had drivers come to a stop at my stop arm then proceed to go through it as if it were a stop sign at an intersection.”

In Illinois, with 310 buses participating statewide, 92 violations were counted in the survey. About 45 percent of drivers broke the law in the morning compared to 50 percent in the afternoon, with the remainder occurring midday.

The survey captures only a fraction of the illegal activity that occurs every day and points to the vulnerability of children once they step outside the bus, experts say.

The stats “are not surprising,” Elgin Area School District U-46's Coordinator of Safety and Security John Heiderscheidtsaid.

“It's always on our radar screen and always a concern for our drivers. That's why we work in partnership with our police departments and provide training for our drivers.”

Illinois law requires drivers on a two-lane roadway to stop for school buses with lights flashing and stop signs lowered.

On four-lane roads, traffic traveling in the same direction as a bus must follow those same rules. Vehicles on a four-lane road headed in the opposite direction are not mandated to stop, but caution is advised.

Violators face a minimum $150 fine and three-month license suspension plus court costs.

Illinois tightened its law in 1995, a year after the death of Peter Chong. The Glenbard South High School sophomore was headed home after football practice when a car speeding on the shoulder of Route 53 in Glen Ellyn killed him as he exited his bus. A college student driving the car was later sentenced to two years in prison for reckless homicide.

The penalty would appear to be having some effect, according to Illinois Secretary of State spokesman Dave Druker. In 2012, the number of drivers whose licenses were suspended for passing a stopped school bus was 284, compared to 333 in 2011 and 387 in 2010.

So here's the $150 question: Why do drivers — who presumably would feel terrible if they injured a child — buzz past lowered stop signs?

“I think everyone knows the law but sometimes people are in a hurry and don't see the need to stop ... they think they can beat the arm,” Buffalo Grove traffic Sgt. Mike Rodriguez said. Buffalo Grove police conduct a variety of surveillance programs and also work with bus drivers to report violators.

The excuses from drivers range from “'the stop arm wasn't out yet' or they 'just didn't see it,' which is totally not true,” Rodriguez added.

District 200's Farley knows “it does take time to load those buses and people are in a hurry.”

But, “a child's life is worth stopping for a few seconds.”

Your voice

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What to do near a school bus

Confused about the law when you're driving near a school bus?

Here's what the Illinois Rules of the Road states:

Ÿ You must stop before meeting or overtaking a school bus loading or unloading passengers on a two-lane roadway. A warning will be given at least 100 feet in advance of a stop. The bus driver will flash amber and red lights on the front and rear of the bus. The stop-signal arm will be extended after the school bus has come to a complete stop. You must then come to a complete stop.

Ÿ You must remain stopped until the stop-signal arm is no longer extended and the flashing lights are turned off, or the driver signals you to pass.

Ÿ On a four-lane roadway where a bus is stopped in the opposite direction from which you are traveling, you are not required to stop your vehicle, but you should drive with caution.

Ÿ Your driver's license or vehicle registration will be suspended for three months and you will pay a minimum $150 fine if you are convicted of illegally passing a stopped school bus.

<b>Scofflaw stats</b>

Here's a look at stats from the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services survey of stop-arm scofflaws. School bus drivers from 29 states spent one day this spring counting stop-arm violations.

• Violations nationwide: 85,279

• Violations in Illinois: 310

• Percentage of violations: In the morning — 45.4 percent; midday — 4.5 percent; in the afternoon — 50.1 percent

• Percent of violations where a driver passed a bus: From the front — 57.5 percent; from the rear — 42.5 percent.

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