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When the light comes on

Nov 16, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Think of a school bus as a traffic signal on wheels, and drive accordingly

New concerns are being raised about school bus safety. Not so much the safety of kids on the buses, although that is a major safety concern as well, of course.

This new safety emphasis, rather, concerns what goes on outside the bus as it stops at its many appointed pick-up and drop-off points, as children get on and off the bus, and as the bus starts moving again.

A recent statement from the Riverton Police Department and endorsed by Fremont County School District 25 outlined basic safety procedures around school buses that ought to have been obvious by now. But a significant number of parents, students and drivers apparently are unsure of exactly what to do around a bus stop. A refresher course is warranted.

Presumably, it is merely coincidence that this directive surfaced at the same time a Lander man is on trial for an incident last year when a sixth-grade girl was struck and killed by a vehicle he was driving, moments after she got off her school bus in rural Fremont County. Accidental or not, the timing of the trial and the safety advisory focuses an added beam of light on the issue of safety outside a school bus.

The driver of the vehicle that struck and killed the child has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, and his defense attorneys are making their case that the girl's death was not a criminal act but an accident -- a terrible one, but an accident nonetheless.

As a legal matter and a public exercise of our justice system, the case has a high level of interest. But the trial itself misses the larger point of school bus safety in a way. Whether the verdict is guilty or not guilty in this prominent case, there are much more-frequent smaller incidents and bad habits that endanger not just the kids getting on and off the bus, but also the kids on the bus, the bus drivers, the drivers and passengers in the offending vehicle, and the other drivers on the road.

The court case concerns an accident under unusual conditions. But what will continue to be important long after this trial ends is the issue of safe conduct and prudent procedures around school buses under ordinary circumstances. So here's the best way to look at it if you are driving: A school bus signal is the same thing as a traffic light if you are an approaching driver.

Think of that bus as a stoplight on wheels. When you see the light, it means stop -- no matter when or where you see it.

Stop means stop, not slow down, not decide if you can pass safely, not check to see if you can spot a child getting on or off. It means stop.

Because of after-school and weekend activities, school buses now run at odd times of the day, not just between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. They travel great distances in our county, not just around town. And they stop at places right on the highway, where the speed limit is high.

Stop means stop. If you don't believe it, your friendly sheriff's deputy or municipal police officer will be happy to explain the situation in more detail, with the help of a traffic ticket and its accompanying fine.

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