BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Every August, when schools are back in session, local safety organizations share an important lesson with drivers: how to behave around a school bus or in a school zone.
Yet Maumee City Schools transportation director Randy Conaway said the district experiences at least one incident a week on average.
“It’s a problem with the public not understanding the laws,” Conaway said during a media event hosted by the Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSHP) on October 16 – the beginning of National School Bus Safety Week.
“While School Bus Safety Week is one week, school bus safety and student safety are top priorities throughout the year. All of our partners agree that students are our most precious cargo,” said OSHP Sgt. Ryan Purpura, who was joined by officers from several communities to kick off the week at Maumee’s bus garage. Throughout the week, area agencies are increasing enforcement efforts around buses and in school zones.
“Our goal is to continue reducing school bus-involved crashes and make our roads safer,” Purpura said.
Prior to stopping, school buses display yellow warning lights that signify the bus is about to stop. Once a bus stops, red flashing lights and a stop sign are displayed. Motorists approaching a stopped school bus from either direction are required to stop at least 10 feet from the bus while the bus driver is receiving or discharging students. When a road is divided into four or more lanes, only traffic driving in the same direction at the bus must stop and remain stopped until the bus starts moving. Visuals of these laws are posted on the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department’s website at lucascountyhealth.com and on Facebook, said Natalie Haase, the county’s traffic safety health coordinator.
“A school zone takes less than two minutes to get through. You can give kids that time. If not, what could really happen to these kids is detrimental to their future, to their safety. How could you live with yourself if a kid ran out because he was trying to get to school? We should consider giving them their space and time,” Haase said.
Maumee Police Chief Josh Sprow said while the number of vehicles passing school buses illegally has dropped since the addition of cameras on buses, it still happens, with complaints largely coming from bus drivers on River Road and Monclova Road.
Where an officer used to be required to personally witness a violation to write a ticket, camera footage can now be used as evidence.
“We can write a ticket even if we’re not the primary witness. With video, there’s no disputing it,” Sprow said.
Passing a school bus illegally can carry a $500 fine, mandatory court hearing and up to a one-year license suspension, Purpura said.
“Beyond the citation, it’s really about making sure our kids are safe on the school bus,” he said.
Since 2018, a total of 6,298 school bus-related traffic crashes have occurred in Ohio, resulting in eight fatalities and 1,982 injuries. Of the eight killed, one was a student riding on the bus, Purpura said.
The Ohio School Bus Safety Committee is considering a recommendation that all school buses be outfitted with seat belts of some kind. OSHP motor vehicle inspector Mike Rodriguez believes that’s not necessary.
“Buses are designed to protect children,” he said, noting that padding on the front and back of the taller seats will minimize injuries as long as the student is seated. His concern is that, in the event of an accident, a driver – especially if injured – might not be able to extract 40 children from their seats to escape a bus that can go up in flames in eight minutes.
Rodriguez, a retired trooper, inspects 900 buses for 42 school districts twice a year. Using Maumee City Schools’ bus No. 23, Rodriguez demonstrated some of the items he looks for, including checking the stop sign, lights, horn and emergency door, along with the battery, brakes, steering, stabilizing bar, tires, seats and windows.
Maumee’s buses regularly undergo full inspections every January and spot-checks every July, said Randy Behr, head mechanic for Maumee City Schools. The district’s 26 buses range in age from 6 months to 19 years and are sold once they reach up to 160,000 miles. Keeping the buses maintained is paramount for student safety, he said.
“We follow the highway patrol inspection checklist. We can’t put it out on the road unless it’s functional. We can’t even have a tear in the seat. Our drivers are good about keeping us informed,” he said.
Students, bus drivers, parents and motorists must also do their part to ensure safety in school zones or around buses, including students looking both ways when exiting a bus – and not just in the roadway.
“We have had motorists passing a school bus on a shoulder. Don’t expect vehicles to stop. Be vigilant. Always pay attention,” Purpura said.