Jeff HeuchertStaff Reporter
The warmer weather has brought with it improved road conditions, but more dangerous drivers as well.
The police, local schools and student bus service are all expressing concern over drivers not obeying the rules of the road when it comes to school buses.
"In theory, things should be better now without the snow and obstacles, but in fact we're seeing the opposite," says Const. Rob Viani, community services officer with the Stratford Police Service.
David Frier, contract manager with First Student, which operates about 80 buses and transports upwards of 3,500 students in Stratford and surrounding rural communities, says on average his drivers report about four instances each week of vehicles passing a school bus when it's stopped and lights are activated.
Viani says bus drivers will not intentionally wave students in front of the bus to cross the street once they've unloaded; however, "kids are kids, and if one takes off quickly - that's the big concern."
Frier notes school buses have also been rear-ended a "number of times" this year, and though no student has been seriously injured, it's a real possibility, whether students are still on the bus or have just unloaded.
"Really, all we're asking for is for drivers to slow down and wait the 15 seconds while we're unloading the students," he adds.
It's along city routes, rather than out in the country, where the majority of these incidences have occurred, Frier says, noting, though, one problematic location is along Highway 8, nearly directly across from the bus depot. Because they don't want students crossing the highway to board the bus, drivers pick up students and turn around in the depot parking lot. Frier adds drivers will also stop on the shoulder if they can do so safely; however, maneuvering back onto the road can often be a problem.
Though a combination of drivers going too fast and not paying attention to the road without doubt contributes to the problem, Frier believes it stems from drivers not understanding the rules around school buses. Ontario law requires drivers to stop when approaching a stopped school bus with its upper red lights flashing. Violators face a fine of up to $2,000 and six demerit points.
Admittedly, though, Viani says it's difficult for police to catch the drivers who break the law. Bus drivers are trained to take down a licence plate if possible, and a report is filed in each instance and sent to police for further investigation.
Police are also using this opportunity to remind motorists not to stop in schools' no parking zones when dropping off or picking up students. It's been a problem at certain schools, including St. Ambrose and Bedford Public in the past.
"The reason (the loading zone is) there is for the safe arrival and departure of the kids as well as the school bus," says Viani. "Principals are working diligently to make sure that school bus loading zone remains safe and clear for all the children."
Frier says it can be difficult for drivers to maneuver a bus on certain roads when the designated loading zone is filled. Buses have both been hit by other vehicles and have struck vehicles trying to pass through tight streets, especially in the winter when snow banks make the streets that much narrower, he notes.
About 10 years ago, crossing arms were added to school buses, and Frier says more safety features like additional lights to warn drivers the bus will be stopping are likely coming.