By Jill Penley
Winter weather, increases in commuter speed and the ongoing transportation of students to and from school via the school bus can be dangerous, and sometimes deadly, combination. Following the 2016 deadly school bus crash in Chattanooga, questions continue to be raised on both the state and federal levels about whether safety policies and regulations are effective enough or if they need an overhaul.
Even closer to home, in late November, a car while boarding a school bus in Washington County, TN, when a driver allegedly failed to yield to a stopped school bus hit a 10-year-old boy. Authorities said the bus was stopped with its lights flashing and arm extended. The boy was crossing the road when a passing car traveling in the opposite direction struck him. Crystal Buchanan, 41, was charged with felony reckless endangerment and failure to yield to a stopped school bus following the crash.
“In light of all the tragic school bus accidents that have happened across our nation some of which have resulted in serious injury and death,” said Johnson County Schools Transportation Supervisor, Barry Bishop. “It is sobering to realize most could have been prevented if drivers would obey the laws and stop when the stop arm and red lights on our school buses are activated.”
Tonya Townsend, who drives a school bus for Johnson County Schools, indicates she witnesses drivers who blatantly disregard traffic laws quite often. “My stop arm has been run several times and, it is so dangerous,” said Townsend. “People are
not paying attention, and it is putting our children at risk.”
Distracted driving remains another safety issue. State law made it illegal to talk on cellphone while driving through an active school zone last January; however, Greg Tramel, public information officer for the Tennessee Highway Patrol, describes an “active school zone” as “any marked school zone in this state, when a warning flasher or flashers are in operation.” The active times for school zones vary but can range between the times of 7:15-8: 15 am and 3:15-4: 15 pm. The law pertains to all motor vehicles including drivers of passenger vehicles and commercial drivers. Texting while driving became illegal in Tennessee in 2009.
The Tennessee Department of Education (TDE) student transportation appropriately put bus safety the department’s number one priority. According to TDE data, Tennessee schools transport approximately 700,000 students a day on about 8,700 bus routes in districts and
charters across the diverse terrain of city, urban, and rural routes.
By exercising extra care and caution, drivers and pedestrians can co-exist safely in school zones. Each school in Johnson County has site-specific drop-off and pick-up procedures.
All motorists must stop when red lights on the bus are flashing, and the stop arm is extended. They should remain at a complete stop until the red flashing lights are turned off, the stop arm is withdrawn, and the bus begins moving before resuming.
Some confusion exists as to multi-lane roads such as along Tennessee Highway 421, which has four lanes of traffic-two in each direction with a shared median. State law requires drivers from all directions to stop when a school bus is stopped at an intersection to load and unload students. When driving on a highway with separate roadways for traffic in opposite directions, drivers must stop unless there is a grass median or physical barrier.
In an effort to further enforce school transportation safety, the Johnson County Board of Education continues to utilize Buster, the School Bus, an educational robot on loan from Tennessee Risk Management, the school system’s insurance provider. Introduced during the recent Mountain City Christmas Parade, Buster will be visiting the county’s elementary schools during January to discuss bus safety with the students. Buster has yellow caution lights; red stoplights with a stop arm and even speak to help students learn how to stay safe when loading and unloading on our school buses.