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Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015

Spencer ahead of curve on bus safety

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Iowa departments of Transportation and Education announced the release of the School Bus Safety Study to the Iowa legislature, as required by Senate File 2218, "Kadyn's Law."

The study addressed three specific safety elements:

- Use of cameras mounted on school buses to enhance the safety of children riding the buses and aid in enforcement of motor vehicle laws pertaining to stop-arm violations.

- Feasibility of requiring school children to be picked up and dropped off on the side of the road on which their homes are located.

In accordance with state law, the Spencer Community Schools bus system participates in a safety evacuation drill.
(File photos)
- Inclusion of school bus safety as a priority in driver training curriculum.

Spencer Community Schools transportation director Julie Nemmers, who also serves as vice president of the Iowa Pupil Transportation Association, said the school district is ahead of the curve when it comes to addressing these issues.

"We do all of these things now," Nemmers said.

"The cameras that we have, we've had since Dan Schultz was here," Nemmers said. "That said, they are outdated."

Nemmers said she recently collected quotes for new cameras for all district buses, which she will present to the school board in the spring as an action item for a summer replacement project.

With regards to dropping children on the side of the road where their homes are located, it's a practice the district always does with the exception of a limited amount of rural roads. In those rare cases, the drop-arm is employed and students are directed to cross in front of the bus.

As part of the driver training, the state of Iowa mandates two bus evacuation drills annually Nemmers said.

Drivers are required to participate in three hours of safety training each year; and Nemmers works with youth driving instructor Dale Waggoner to present bus interaction training as part of the curriculum.

"Annually, I ride on the buses and perform a driver evaluation," Nemmers added, focusing on safety and route-related issues.

Among the report's findings, 20 Iowa school districts confirmed they are currently using stop-arm cameras as a deterrent.

Nemmers was initially stunned by the low number of participating districts.

"It's not shocking to me now. It was for me when I first heard it," Nemmers said. "They're worth their weight in gold."

She explained, "When you go into court, the driver does a written report and we take the download into court on a laptop. How can you argue with that?"

Nemmers continued, "When I talk to districts that haven't done the cameras, it's the cost. How can you put a price tag on safety?"

The Spencer transportation director added, "Spencer is one of the few schools in Iowa that have bus monitors that ride morning and afternoon. They help kids cross the road when necessary. You have another set of eyes on the bus to help with bullying and behavior. You talk to drivers now, compared with when they drove without bus monitors, they'll say, 'I' don't know how I did it.'"

Nemmers directed credit to the district administration for its focus on safe travel for its students.

"I'm very, very proud of superintendent and school board support. When I go there and ask for something related to safety, they're backing what we do. Safety is our number one priority."

She noted the important role ongoing maintenance efforts play in keeping the district's bus fleet safe and functioning properly.

"We have a really good system in place for maintenance of the buses. It all ties in together," Nemmers said.

Additional key findings in the statewide study were:

- Stop-arm cameras do aid in the enforcement of motor vehicle laws and enhance safety if there is an effective and sustainable process to turn a camera image into a traffic citation and ultimately a court conviction.

- The present method of identifying stop-arm violators captured on school bus cameras and subsequent issuance of citations by law enforcement agencies is a laborious task for all parties involved.

- Although Kadyn's Law imposes a mandatory minimum fine of $250 for the first offense, records show that 65 percent of fines imposed between Aug. 15 and Oct. 31, 2012, were less than the minimum. As with any new law, enhanced awareness within the judicial system of the changes in the Iowa Code resulting from Kadyn's Law should result in an increased alignment of convictions and sentencing to the present Iowa Code provisions.

- School districts should continue to be encouraged to consider home-side loading as a matter of best practice and discretion; but researchers stopped short of recommending this be a specific requirement.

- As a best practice, inclusion of illustrations in driver training curriculum may improve driver comprehension of school bus stop requirements.

The study also mentioned that installation of a second stop sign at the rear of the school bus is a low-cost traffic control solution that enhances safety by increasing the visibility of the stop sign for vehicles approaching from the rear, thus preventing some motorists from overtaking a school bus when children are loading or unloading. A second stop sign is an option already available to Iowa school districts and is presently being exercised by some.

In response to the findings, Steve Gent, director of the Iowa DOT's Office of Traffic and Safety, said: "The study conducted by researchers at Iowa State University and the University of Iowa evaluated school bus safety measures as required by the legislature. This report states that parents should be encouraged to have their children ride the bus to and from school because buses are one of the safest forms of transportation available. Yet, the safety of our children is still a real concern, primarily due to vehicles illegally passing stopped school buses."

"Ensuring the safety of Iowa's school children is a top priority for this department and for all of Iowa schools and districts," Max Christensen, the Iowa Department of Education's state director of school transportation, said. "Taking actions at the local level, such as evaluating the feasibility of home-side loading/unloading of students, and working with area law enforcement agencies, is essential."

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