Never Again: School bus drivers debate road dangers - Part 2

Published: Feb. 1, 2019 at 3:45 PM EST
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Drivers who pass school buses illegally put kids’ lives in danger. It’s a problem that happens more often than you think.

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) conducted a one-day survey of violations. Indiana school bus drivers reported 3,077 stop arm violations during a single day in April last year. Not all of the state’s bus drivers participated, so the actual number is likely much higher.

We asked the state to release the data of our local districts that participated in that one-day study. Here are some of the results:

South Bend Community School Corporation: 132

Penn-Harris-Madison: 85

Elkhart Community Schools: 73

Michigan City Area Schools: 50

Middlebury Community Schools: 34

For the results from other participating districts, click here.

WNDU brought together 14 area school bus drivers to discuss violations and other concerns on the roads.

“It just terrifies you. What are they gonna do?” said Don King, a transportation director and school bus driver from Rochester. “You’ve got to watch the other people and you've got to watch the kids. It's a tough job. I appreciate my drivers and what they do, and I try to tell them every day.”

“You can only get to people two ways,” said Dan Bridegroom from North Judson San Pierre. “Get to them through their heart or through their wallet.”

These drivers agree stop arm cameras and stiffer penalties may get the message across.

And curbside drop off and pickups provide a safer way to board or get off of a bus on a highway so that children don’t cross a lane of traffic.

But on other roads and intersections, some bus drivers admit, they take matters into their own hands.

“Show of hands: How many of you wish you could block the road with your bus?” asked NewsCenter 16's Tricia Sloma.

Several hands went up.

“I know we're not supposed to,” said one bus driver as she described her rural route. “But I’m in the center of the road when I pick up my kids. God forbid if anyone tries to get around me, they’re going in the ditch. Even more so in this situation.”

“Blocking the roads, I’m all for it,” said Robert “Skeeter” Daugherty, Rochester Community Schools resource officer and substitute driver. “State Police tell me I can't do it.”

“We want to block the intersection. We have been blocking the intersection. We're being told we can't,” said Daugherty. “Don and I have talked, and I guess you're going to have to write us a ticket. We're going to keep those kids safe and we're going to keep those vehicles from coming in those different directions.”

Not everyone agrees. Dan Bridegroom, a driver from North Judson-San Pierre, worked in transportation before he became a bus driver. He investigated accidents.

“The most severe and mostly fatal accidents happened at intersections where one car was stopped and got hit," Bridegroom said. "You're absorbing the impact. If it's a small car, 1,500 pounds. A semi? Forty to 50 tons. Yes, we’ve got to keep the kids safe. But to block the intersection is the last thing that I would want to do.”

Railroad crossings are another big worry, especially after an Eastern Pulaski bus was struck on U.S. 31 in Marshall County after stopping at a crossing. One child died.

By law, school buses are required to stop at rail crossings.

“Is that terrifying?” Sloma asked.

“We've told all of our drivers, any railroad tracks, it's going to be common sense,” said Brenda Uceny, transportation direction at Plymouth Community Schools. “I will back you with whatever happens.”

“I was slowing down. I looked up in the rear mirror. Two semis behind me and all of a sudden, smoke was coming off the tires. And I just went across. I didn't stop at the railroad tracks,” said Todd Huffman, transportation director at Bremen Schools. “I guess if there was someone to write me a ticket, they could write me a ticket. That semi driver was trying to figure out (if he should) hit the bus, hit the car or put the truck in the ditch.”

These drivers are fully aware of their responsibilities. After all, they're highly trained.

“I just want the public to know that bus drivers aren't just soccer moms/soccer dads driving a minivan,” said bus driver Debbie Vascil from New Prairie. “We go through extensive training, A.) To get our CDL license, B.) To drive that bus. And we are constantly being updated on a new safety procedure and how to keep our kids safe.”

That requires a special partnership with the kids.

“I tell my kids almost every day, ‘Remember, when you get off this bus, you look at me. You check your traffic. You look at me,’” said Jennifer Richter, a Caston bus driver. “We have to train our kids.”

The public needs more training too.

“Learning to be a school bus driver has made me a better driver,” said Judy Hygema from LaVille. “I think educating the public is key. And I want to thank you for using the news media to educate the public, getting these issues out.”

Tricia Sloma has been following the progression of legislation and other action taken by members of the community to help improve school bus and bus stop safety since the tragic crash in late October. You can read and view more installments of her Never Again series here: