Agassiz RCMP issued a stern warning to drivers this week: Not heeding the lights on a school bus could cost the life of a child.
The warning came after a very close call on a local bus route in late February.
A young boy was getting off the bus, walking to the waiting arms of his mother on the other side of the street.
The red lights were flashing. The school bus was stopped. The requisite “STOP” sign was drawn out across traffic, alerting drivers that children were in the road, leaving the bus, and quite possibly crossing the road.
But on this day, one driver either didn’t care, or didn’t notice. That little boy came “within inches” of being hit by a passing motorist, local RCMP told the Observer.
The driver didn’t even stop to acknowledge the close call, but luckily the child’s mother and the bus driver were able to jot down the license plate, and RCMP say that the driver has been dealt with.
But School District 78 bus driver Milt Wilhelms says that drivers ignoring the many flashing lights is a huge concern.
“It probably happens about one to two times a week,” he says. “Quite often, right by the police office (in Agassiz) or near Cameron on the Lougheed Hwy, and along Hot Springs Road.”
And yes, he says, he is watching.
So are the nine other district school bus drivers, along with the drivers for Seabird Island, Chehalis and the private schools.
The drivers all watch. They also record, and they definitely report.
Wilhelms says that they work closely with the RCMP to help ticket offenders.
“People are just not paying attention,” he says, but whether they’re too busy sightseeing (in the tourist months), texting, or being impatient, the risk is the same.
In the 21 years that Dan Landreth has worked for the school district, no one has been hit while leaving a school bus.
But like all bus drivers, Landreth has seen his fair share of close calls.
And more importantly, he’s helped prevent them.
There was the time he noticed a new driver (who used to ride the very same bus) pull up along the right hand curb to pass an unloading bus. While the students were walking down the stairs to the bus door, Landreth noticed the car, pulled the doors closed, and kept the kids safe.
Landerth reported one driver, who he says turned out to be a Mission school teacher.
“She was late for work,” he says. “Just amazing.”
Keeping them safe
There are 875 School District 78 students registered to ride 10 busses, over 10 routes, from Agassiz and Harrison to Boston Bar and Hope.
As transportation superviser, it’s Landreth’s job to keep the buses safe for those kids.
Over the years, there have been safety adjustments made to fleets across the country. Here, Landreth has changed from incandescent to LEDs, which are brighter .
There are bars that come out from the bus, keeping the students from walking directly in front of the bus.
This, Landreth says, improves visibility for the driver, by keeping children away from a potential blind spot in front of the long-nosed buses.
Then there’s communication, such as sign language, between the driver and the kids.
Wilhelms and Landreth say they use hand signals and eye contact to let kids know when it’s safe to stop.
Similarly, they may reach out a window and signal for an oncoming driver to stop, before it’s too late.
If they notice kids with hoodies on, or listening to headphones, they remind them to watch for traffic.
When possible, they pull over to let traffic pass, or wait to let oncoming cars drive through before activating the stop lights.
And when things go well?
“I wave and say thank you” to drivers who are paying attention.
While there is a fine for disobeying bus signals, $187, Landreth says it’s not about the fine at all.
“It’s not a monetary issue,” he says. “This is about getting the information into the public so kids don’t get hurt,” he says.
“People need to try to be a little more patient,” he adds.