Pine River-Backus School records 5 bus stop arm violations in first month – Pine and Lakes Echo Journal | #schoolsaftey

PINE RIVER — Though the penalties for passing a school bus with its stop arm extended may be great, Pine River-Backus School bus drivers had at least five violations in just the first month of school.

“We’ve probably had, since school started, five or six stop arm violations,” said Charity Crannell, the school district’s transportation director. “I was only able to call in two because I was actually able to see the license plates. If we don’t get a plate or I can’t pull it up on camera, what do you do? There’s not much we can do.”

Among Pine River-Backus bus drivers, those who have stops on Highway 371 tend to have the most violations. Vehicles traveling at high speeds don’t respect stop arm laws much more than they do speed limits.

People will see a school bus and think, ‘Oh, I have to jump in front of them,’ Heaven forbid they get behind a school bus.

David Smith

“Highway 371 and County Road 1 (are bad),” Crannell said. “371 is my worst from what I’ve seen.”

One of the 371 route drivers is Dave Smith.

“I have two stops on 371, and the traffic is always bad,” Smith said. “Sometimes I wait three, four or five minutes for a gap big enough to go.”

While the modern school buses Pine River-Backus Schools use are among the safest vehicles on the road, some students must first cross Highway 371 — like these students Tuesday morning, Oct. 17, 2023 — to reach that safety, and not all motorists fear or respect the laws about passing school buses.

Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

Crannell said she was aware of at least three violations for Smith’s bus alone, though they only really report violations where there is a chance to read a license plate.

“This year has been the worst,” Smith said. “Since the start of the school year I’ve had one to two violations a week.”

Passing a school bus with its stop arm out is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine from $500-$1,000 and 90 days in jail.

For drivers who commit this violation while children are outside of the bus, it becomes a gross misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $3,000 and one year in jail.

Violators can be arrested up to four hours after the incident if there is sufficient cause, and those who are not found in that time are still liable to receive a criminal complaint from the county, requiring a court appearance.

Motorists may also have their driver’s license suspended or revoked.

While those punished for this violation have often been witnessed passing on the left of the bus, particularly careless drivers sometimes attempt to pass buses on the shoulder or in passing lanes, placing those speeding vehicles between the open doors of the bus and the children walking toward them.

This has happened in Pine River, even this year.

“He pulled up to a stop on 371 and these kids have been riding forever so they know to pay attention,” Crannell said. “My driver pays close attention to the traffic. This particular day he’s facing north coming into town so the kids didn’t have to cross the street. The kids saw this car coming, heading south, and he just blew through, essentially, between the kids and the bus and didn’t even slow down.”

Bus drivers often have a very clear view of the reason why drivers ignore the stop arm.

“I sit up higher in a bus,” Smith said. “I can see it’s cellphones.”

school safety 3.jpg

Once students have boarded a Pine River-Backus school bus, they become some of the safest passengers on the road thanks to bus design, constant driver training and certification/regulation of both. These students board Tuesday morning, Oct. 17, 2023.

Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

Smith said he once watched as a driver distracted by their cellphone rearended another car that was stopped for his bus. He was fortunate that another vehicle took the hit and not one of his students.

Safety around buses does not stop with stop arms and putting away phones and other distractions. It is also important to remember to give buses ample space while following them.

Vehicles are expected to stay at least 20 feet from a bus stopped with its red lights flashing, and not creep forward before the stop arm is retracted and lights are turned off.

Keeping a reasonable distance from buses continues while driving on the road with them.

I sit up higher in a bus. I can see it’s cellphones.

David Smith

Recently, an activity bus driver reported to Crannell that he was forced to make an unscheduled stop on the road because motorists behind him were following so close that his headlights weren’t even visible to the bus driver.

Situations like that could lead to disaster should the bus driver be forced to make a sudden stop.

Drivers should also refrain from treating yellow flashing lights as a sign to speed up and get past a bus. Children regularly receive instruction not to cross a road or even a shoulder to board a bus until the driver has directed them to do so, but young children are especially prone to forgetfulness and distraction and could run across the road to board a bus before the bus or traffic are fully stopped.

“It seems like when they see the amber lights they hammer down the gas like it’s at a yellow light or whatever,” Smith said.

Smith said motorists also try to cut off buses, likely to avoid stopping and starting for students.

Our buses are designed to keep our kids safe in the event of an impact. The seats are designed to take the impact of a body hitting it. Then they push you back into your seat. You are essentially cocooned in your area. That’s how it works.

Charity Crannell

“People will see a school bus and think, ‘Oh, I have to jump in front of them,'” Smith said. “Heaven forbid they get behind a school bus.”

Crannell and her drivers train twice a year with monthly safety meetings to ensure safe operation is always their primary focus. Drivers are also certified every four years and are subject to physical health and drug tests to make sure they are healthy and clean of any intoxicants.

They carefully plan routes in such a way that they can often cut down on the likelihood of above events or worse.

Crannell said they work to ensure students do not need to cross roads or highways, planning bus routes so the bus stops on the same side of the road, and as often as possible with the doors on the same side as the students boarding.

Unfortunately, some driveways do not have turnarounds, and on Highway 371 it would be unsafe to back up the bus onto the highway, thus necessitating the stops on the highway.

In addition, parents must accompany younger riders to the bus stop.

“I do require parents of preschoolers and kindergartners or an older sibling to be out there for the safety of their children,” Crannell said. “These younger children do great for the most part but they are easily distracted.”

Because they carry children, buses are some of the safest vehicles on the road.

Cass County Sheriff Bryan Welk wrote in a recent column, “According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, school buses are the safest mode of transportation for children — children are eight times safer riding in a bus to school than any other vehicle, according to the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety.”

However, that safety depends on the behavior of others – not just the other motorists, but the children on the bus as well.

“Our buses are designed to keep our kids safe in the event of an impact,” Crannell said. “The seats are designed to take the impact of a body hitting it. Then they push you back into your seat. You are essentially cocooned in your area. That’s how it works.”

That is one reason why students must keep seated and not stand in or walk into the aisles.

In addition, children must keep noise to a reasonable level and not disrupt the driver so that they may pay attention to the road around them.

For that and many other reasons, children are also educated on bus safety. Welk shared an acronym, SAFE, to help children be careful on and around the bus.

  • Stay five steps away from the curb.
  • Always wait until the bus comes to a complete stop and the bus driver signals you to board.
  • Face forward after finding a seat on the bus.
  • Exit the bus after it stops and look left-right-left for cars before crossing a street.

Like other schools in the area, the Pine River-Backus School District is looking for drivers. The district is still seeking one route driver, substitute drivers and activities drivers.
Drivers are needed for two-hour routes in the morning and in the afternoon. The school provides all necessary training and activities drivers get into activities for free.

Other area districts may be suffering from an even greater long-term driver shortage.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or [email protected].

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