As students throughout Windham County head back to school this week (except for Twin Valley Elementary School), it's time for motorist to get back into habit of taking extra precautions while driving near school zones and school bus stops. Drivers need to be more vigilant now to the unpredictable nature of children and remember some basic safety rules as they drive around town during the morning and afternoon hours.
According to the American School Bus Council, 25 million children across the U.S. ride some 480 school buses to and from school every school day. Statistically, riding the bus is the safest mode of transporting children to and from school.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates that students are safer riding the bus than being driven by a parent, riding with friends, or, in the case of older students, driving themselves to and from school. The annual average of student fatalities during normal school travel hours is 58 percent for teen drivers, 20 percent if traveling with an adult driver, and 1 percent if traveling by school bus.
The greatest risk for school bus-related injury or death occurs when children are either approaching or leaving their school bus. The NHTSA states that most of the children who lose their lives in bus-related crashes are pedestrians, four to seven years old, who are hit by the bus or by motorists illegally passing a stopped school bus. All 50 states have a law making it illegal to pass a school bus that is stopped to load or unload children. This includes traffic in both directions on undivided roadways.
Remember, yellow flashing lights indicate that the bus is preparing to stop to load or unload children. Motorists should slow down and prepare to stop their vehicles. And of course, red flashing lights and extended stop arms indicate that the bus has stopped, and that children are getting on or off. Motorists must stop their cars and wait until the red lights stop flashing, the extended stop sign is withdrawn, and the bus begins moving before they can start driving again.
The National Safety Council offers several other tips for motors to keep in mind while buses are on the road and while driving near school zones and bus stops. For example, the area 10 feet around a school bus is where children are in the most danger of being hit. The NSC recommends stopping the car far enough from the bus -- at least 20 feet -- to allow children the necessary space to safely enter and exit the bus.
Always be on alert for children darting out from a bus or between parked cars. Children walking to or from their bus are usually very comfortable with their surroundings. This makes them more likely to take risks, ignore hazards or fail to look both ways when crossing the street.
Allow extra time while buses are on the road so you don't feel rushed into making a mistake. If possible, avoid bus routes during pick-up and drop-off times.
For children who walk to school, drivers should not block the crosswalk when stopped at a red light or waiting to make a turn. And always stop when directed by a school patrol sign or designated crossing guard.
When backing out of a driveway or leaving a garage, watch out for children walking or bicycling to school. And whenever you're near a school zone watch out for young people who may be thinking about getting to school, but may not be thinking of getting there safely.
Parents should discuss school bus and pedestrian safety with their children, and they also should take extra precautions themselves when driving their children to school. Check with the school to learn about child safety procedures and routines.
Remember to watch out for other children, not just your own. Motorists are so worried about their own child's safety and about being on-time for school and work, that they commit safety infractions afterward (like passing a school bus with its lights flashing in the school parking lot). A story on child safety from About.com says school officials report double-parking, speeding through school zones, not being on the lookout for children darting between cars or careening off their bicycles, or even doing a U-turn on a two-way street.
One of the biggest complaints by school officials is that parents find a reason to be an exception to the rule, according to the article. If the curb says "No stopping, standing or parking at any time," that means for everyone.
Finally, refrain from using your cell phone or any other distractions while around school zones. This common-sense advice really applies whenever a motorist is behind the wheel, but especially when driving around young children and their perhaps spontaneous actions.
Following these basic tips will ensure a safe school year for all of Windham County's students. The last thing we want is to report on the tragic death of a child from an accident that could have been avoided.