Karen Johnson was just about to open the door to let a group of increasingly anxious kids off the bus at the end of another school day as she heard the growing howls of protest.
“Let us off, let us off!”
Her vehicle’s “stop” arm extended down with its red lights flashing like a Christmas tree when she noticed a car zooming by at full speed.
She quickly stopped.
“I was saying, ‘Wait a second, and you’ll see why,’” Johnson recalled at the Dec. 2 Stoughton Area School District’s board meeting. “I could see the person was looking at their phone and there was no slowing down. I was beeping the horn, waving the arm out the window and it didn’t even faze the person.”
Complaints about unsafe driving like that are on the rise, prompting the district to post a plea to “help in keeping kids safe” on its Facebook account Dec. 16.
“If you see a bus’ stop arm or red lights activate, please stop and wait until they deactivate and the bus starts moving again,” the post read. “Pay attention to your surroundings and proceed slowly.”
Last school year, the district had “two very, very, very close calls” where drivers had to go into the ditch at the last minute to avoid rear-ending a bus, Johnson said. Board member Alison Sorg said from talking to people about the incidents, she was stunned by how many don’t understand the law about when to stop.
“There is a knowledge deficit,” she said. “A lot of people just aren’t paying attention, but some people really don’t understand what they’re supposed to do.”
School board president Frank Sullivan said despite modern vehicles and competent drivers, students are still vulnerable when getting on or off a bus.
“Our buses are brightly colored. They have flashing lights and stop arms. It is impossible to not notice them. But people don’t stop,” he wrote in an email to the Hub. “And it’s a big deal, because each incident increases the risk that a child will be hit by a car and badly injured or killed.”
While bus drivers report license numbers of violators whenever they can, there’s only so much they can do, as they’re focusing on the road and the students.
Buses have cameras mounted on their stop arms, but the way they have been aligned, it has been difficult to view license plate numbers of offending vehicles, Johnson said, adding the success rate has been around 25%. Sullivan said the district is remounting the cameras to be better able to record license plates and help police catch offenders.
“All we can do is make people wish they had stopped,” he said. “The ticket is not cheap.”
Depending on the municipality, the ticket is at least $300 (and up to $700), and it is applicable regardless of who is driving, Johnson said. So if someone else is driving your car and gets caught, you can also pay a price.
“The owner of one car was a licensed CDL driver, and a stop arm violation is an automatic loss of license,” she explained. “So I had somebody begging me, over and over and over, to drop the ticket, which I can’t do.”
While bus passing incidents are a “growing concern,” City of Stoughton Police Chief Greg Leck said without a license plate number, it’s “very hard” to follow up on complaints.
“We try to have staff in and around school bus stops and the schools on a regular basis, but often that only works when officers are present,” he wrote the Hub in an email. “(People) have a responsibility to drive with care and follow the laws, especially when it relates to schools and bus stops. Inattentiveness will always eventually lead to someone getting hurt or killed.”