LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — An average of 10 children a year are killed when drivers ignore the flashing red lights and stop signs on school buses. As recently as 2014, a 12-year-old Arkansas student was killed because of a driver failing to follow the rules of the road. As stats continue to stay steady on the number of incidents reported by drivers, school districts and state officials search for a way to get drivers to stop.
Every morning, Donna Wilchie is behind the wheel of a Conway School District bus.
“My fear is somebody is going to get hit. But I can’t get out of the bus and go direct traffic and get back on either,” she said, as she prepared to stop and pick up students at a location on a two lane road.
Getting the kids to school safely, she said, does not always hinge on her doing everything right. Drivers in other cars are ultimately the one directing how the day will go.
“They’ll just run right through them some morning; other mornings there are random cars that will run the sign, and some it’s fine,” Wilchie said.
During a 2016 national survey, Arkansas bus drivers reported more than 700 instances of cars illegally passing stopped school buses in a single day. The numbers are consistent with the two previous years with about 550 reported in 2015 and 600 in 2014.
“One driver told me the other day she had three in one day pass her stop sign,” Wilchie said.
While kids are statistically safer inside a school bus than nearly any other mode of transportation, when a driver blows through a stop sign that’s when kids are most vulnerable. They face a danger that is too close for comfort for many.
An Arkansas student was killed in 2014 due to illegal passing, and most bus drivers will tell you they have had plenty of close calls.
“It scares you to death as a driver. I’ve had drivers, and I’ve done it myself,” said Edward Dow, Director of Transportation for Conway Schools. “I’ve come in shaking, literally, in tears because I had a near miss.”
Districts try and educate communities about illegal bus passing, but holding drivers accountable can be tough. According to driver control just 639 drivers have been convicted of illegally passing a stopped school bus since 2014.
“Typically, depending on the county, you can’t prosecute unless law enforcement actually witnesses a driver passing a bus,” said Mark Gotcher, Deputy Commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education.
Bus drivers are required to report license plates of illegal passers to their districts, if they can catch the numbers. Typically, that report only results in a courtesy call from law enforcement. That’s if police can track down a working phone number. In Conway, bus drivers have reported about 900 incidents of illegal passing over the past three years.
“You said you start of your day with a prayer for these kids?” this reporter asked Dow.
“I do. Every morning that we get them to and from school safely,” he said.
Some states have taken stronger tacks to enforcement, allowing or even mandating that schools post cameras on the outside of buses so video can be used as evidence to issue a ticket or take the driver to court.
“We do that in security cameras in banks and businesses, why not for the most commodity for our state – our children?” Gotcher said.
Arkansas law does not expressly allow or disallow external cameras to catch passing cars. The law is silent on if those images could be used as evidence to ticket motorists after the fact.
“At least it would give us another tool,” Dow said. “If we had that option. How effective it would be as a deterrent, I couldn’t say. But it would be one more option.”
Gotcher spent seven years driving a school bus, and he said he would back an effort to give districts more discretion for enforcement, including the external cameras.
“With the use of technology, there could be laws in place in Arkansas in the future that could allow for prosecution,” he said.
But one issue that exists for districts, even without the external cameras, is funding. Transportation, as KARK has already highlighted, is not actually a mandated education service by the state, and transportation is not categorically funded for school districts. Without extra money, many districts we spoke with say they are not sure they would be able to afford the technology. Some states have funded the cameras directly for districts as a public safety concern.
Drivers like Donna Wilchie are always on the lookout to keep their kids safe.
“You have to think about kids also getting ready to cross if they’re not paying attention and the driver’s not paying attention – it’s disaster waiting to happen ,” she said.
Once the child steps on the shoulder, Wilchie and her students are at the mercy of others behind the wheel behind willing to stop to save a life.
Need more information on the law regarding school buses and passing? Visit the Arkansas Department of Education’s website page geared specifically for that topic HERE.
DO YOU NEED KARK WORKING 4 YOU?
KARK Working 4 You is committed to highlighting issues that are important to Arkansas. If you have a story that needs to be covered, call Reporter Marci Manley on the Working 4 You Tipline at (501) 340-4448 or email at email@example.com.