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It's that time of year again - safety first for school bus stops

| Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2002

As a licensed school bus driver for 14 years and a certified school bus driving instructor for half that time, Mary Bloom has learned a lot about the job and what others in her position need to know to perform it properly.

However, those in most need of an education in school bus safety aren't bus drivers, according to Bloom, but other motorists.

"Actually, our school bus drivers are normally fine. I think other people need to be educating themselves on school bus safety," said Bloom, who buses children to and from West Shamokin High School on Route 85 during the school year and trains drivers for A.J. Myers Bus Co..

Bloom, also a certified commercial driver's license tester, said too many motorists don't pay attention to the flashing yellow and red signal lights and the stop arm extending from buses when stops are being made, thus violating state law.

"They just want to get around and not have to stop, and it's kind of hard to react to that when you're driving a 26,000 pound vehicle," said Bloom. "In the Rural Valley area, they blow by at least once or twice a week."

And with school set to begin Aug. 28 for West Shamokin and the rest of Armstrong School District, Bloom, Shawn Houck, PennDOT District 10 safety press officer and ASD transportation director Rick Mulroy all have stressed the need for area motorists to exercise better judgment and increased caution near known county bus stops to avoid needless tragedy.

"I have children of my own in school, so I know what it's like to be concerned with safety, and I used to take care of 50 of them every day, and when that kid is on the bus, I feel like I'm their parent," said Bloom.

Statewide, the latest available statistics on accidents involving school buses from 2000 actually show that school bus related deaths are 0.3 percent of total fatalities, and most persons killed were not school bus passengers at the time of the crash.

"The neat thing about this is we don't really have many problems, but we really don't want them," said Houck. "All it takes is one, and when that happens, it's a catastrophe."

And Houck said he is most afraid of such catastrophes occurring on the first day of school.

"People aren't used to the school bus stops, so when they come around the corner they haven't seen school buses blocking the way for three months, now in just a short time they be face with a school bus stopped in the middle of a state or local highway," said Houck. "Kids are also going to be excited and running around to find their friends, darting across the street, these are all things that go on during the first day.

"I think the more that we get the message out to reminding people that school's going to be starting shortly, the more they'll be aware of it and the more they'll adjust properly."

For students, Mulroy said, ASD publishes handbooks for both elementary and secondary level students with complete sections on the subject.

"It basically deals with rules on being at the bus stop on time or five minutes ahead and behavior on the buses, because the bus is really an extension of the classroom," said Mulroy.

Also, Mulroy said, the district holds an annual orientation on safety issues before the start of the school year for students and their parents.

"We let kindergarten students tour a bus to get a feel for it, and distribute coloring books and workbooks dealing with safety," said Mulroy.

Before and after school hours, Mulroy said, a rotation of teachers have bus duty which involves supervising students from different parts of building outside.

"I get more involved in making sure drivers are certified and trained properly," said Mulroy.

And Bloom said the rigorous training process for bus drivers reflects the importance of the responsibility they are dealt.

"Each new driver has to complete 20 hours of training, 14 in the classroom and six hours on the road, but it's always much more than that," said Bloom, who also said drivers must obtain their commercial driver's license.

Certified drivers also must undergo a yearly physical examination and have to recertify themselves every four years, which involves an additional seven hours in the classroom and three more on the road, Bloom said.

"Bus drivers are a really great group of people to teach, because they all bring in their personal experiences to relate different points in the studies," said Bloom. "If you think you know everything about school busing, that's when you're going to make a mistake, so you have to look to the examples of others to continue to learn."

In an effort to accomplish that, Bloom said she meets with drivers at the beginning of every school year to discuss any issues they may have with safety on the job.

According to the state School Bus Stopping Law, it is mandatory that motorists stop at least 10 feet away from the bus and wait until the red lights have stopped flashing and the stop arm has been withdrawn before moving again.

The only time a motorist is not required to stop is when they are on the opposite side of a divided highway from a bus or separated from children by a permanent physical barrier.

The speed limit in reduced speed school safety zones is 15 miles per hour.

Drivers who violate these laws will receive penalties, which may include a 60-day driver's license suspension, five points on their driving record and a $100 fine.

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