I want to make it clear that this article in no way is meant to blame any of the people involved in what appears, by all accounts, to have been a tragic accident when a Brooklyn school bus killed a 4-year-old boy in Boro Park on February 17. But as a father who knows the pain of burying his own children only too well, I believe that it is important to ask if there is any room for improvement in our school bus safety procedures.
From the brief discussions I have had with people about busing, there does seem to be some larger safety issues to address. Unlike most secular neighborhoods that are serviced by relatively few buses, our communities often have school buses from dozens of schools operating in the same short time frames along the same busy streets.
It is not hard to imagine the impatience of other drivers on their way to work getting stuck behind multiple buses making multiple stops on every block. This reality forces our buses to move quickly and not wait for students to arrive and be seated or exit safely.
In the last few days I have heard several parents describe regularly observing unsafe school bus practices, either in their neighborhood or during their drive to work. These include picking up children from the wrong side of a boulevard, individual school buses making multiple stops on the same block, buses leaving the bus stop area before children are seated and buses dropping off children onto snow banks.
School bus safety standards differ by state and locality, but there are a few common sense procedures we can implement that can improve school bus safety. Students should be waiting outside when their bus arrives (even when it is cold), standing in a well-lit, safe spot on the sidewalk at least six feet away from the street. The entire area, from the place the students stand and wait, all the way to the place where the school bus door will open should be cleared of snow and ice. Students should wait for the bus to come to a complete stop and open its door before moving toward the street and then walk in an orderly single file line, boarding carefully.
Buses should not leave the bus stop before all students are safely seated. It is better when school buses stop on the same side of the street as the children who are boarding and exiting. This is especially true for primary streets with traffic moving in both directions. Buses should never pick up or drop off children from the wrong side of a boulevard.
It would be difficult to implement these standards under our current school bus models. While I understand that implementing change often comes with unfortunate unintended consequences, the safety of our children must be our top priority. We must consider designating one safe bus-pickup and drop-off area per block to be used by all students from all schools. The stop must have adequate room so that buses can stop and students can safety board and be seated or exit directly to the sidewalk.
Parents should take turns monitoring the bus stop to ensure that all students and bus drivers adhere to the safety procedures and that the stop remains safe regardless of the weather conditions. We must consider combining bus routes between neighborhood schools to avoid school bus congestion. Fewer buses and fewer bus stops can allow more time for safe pick-up and drop-off procedures.
If you see a school bus that is not following safety procedures, don’t be shy. Call the bus company and report the bus driver. Make sure to note the school bus company name, the school bus number, the street on which you observed the infraction and the exact time. Keep a record of your report. If the same driver continues to engage in unsafe procedures after multiple complaints, call and report all of the incidents, including the dates and times of the violations to your local school district and the State Highway Safety Board.
It will take time and effort to enforce school bus safety standards. Busy parents will have to take turns monitoring and cleaning bus stops, students will need to be prepared earlier, walk down the block to their designated stop and wait outside in the cold, rain and snow. Before you ask if all this extra trouble is worth it, look at your children, give them a hug and ask yourself if there is anything in the world that is more valuable to you. The lives you save may be your own.
Chaim Shapiro, M.Ed., serves on the Executive Committee of JBAC, The Jewish Board of Advocates for Children http://jewishadvocates.org. He is also the founder of the largest Orthodox online networking group, the Frum Network on Linkedin. He welcomes comments suggestions and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.Chaim Shapiro