Credit: Credit: Albemarle County Public Schools

The frequency in which motorists illegally passed a stopped school bus declined by 89 percent in a pilot program conducted by the Albemarle County Public Schools’ transportation department in May and June.

These results follow an earlier pilot program in which extended stop arms were installed on school buses in the fall of 2017. In that instance, school bus safety violations were reduced by more than 50 percent.

The extended stop arms in the first pilot measured six feet when deployed, compared to the one foot deployment standard on most school buses. They proved to be more instantly visible to motorists, who not only stopped more often when a school bus was loading or unloading school children, but also stopped farther from the bus.

“We were very encouraged by those results,” said transportation director, Jim Foley, about the pilot study, which was conducted over a 15-day period in September of 2017. “We continued to test the use of the extended stop arms on selected routes for the rest of the school year and used what we learned to further improve the program,” he said.

That led to the most recent pilot program this year. The deployment time of the extended stop arms was sped up from seven seconds to four seconds by changing the actuator from a mechanically-operated cylinder to a pneumatic cylinder. The length of the arms was reduced from six feet to four feet to prevent the stop arms from striking vehicles in adjoining lanes.

Three routes were used for the pilot this year, including two roads with a history of unusually high incidences of motorists illegally passing stopped school buses. On one of the routes, without the extended stop arms, 15 violations were recorded between May 7 and May 18. On that same route, with the extended stop arm, no violations occurred between May 21 and June 5.

Overall, on the three test routes, there were 55 violations between May 7 and 18 without the use of the extended stop arms, but between May 21 and June 5, the number of violations were reduced to six, an 89 percent improvement.

Motorists illegally passing a stopped school bus has been a major concern of the school division for several years. A 2013 study found that as many as 6,000 safety violations occur each year throughout the county as the result of motorists passing stopped school buses while children are entering or leaving the bus.

The transportation department first proposed the use of stop arm cameras to record the license plates of motorists who violate the safety law, a proposal that was approved by both the School Board and the Board of Supervisors. The proposal was initially passed by the General Assembly, but its implementation has been stalled by a dispute over whether car registration information can be shared by the state with the operator of the cameras. That information is necessary in order for violations to be issued.

“Our objective is not to see more violations issued to drivers,” Foley said. “Our goal is to prevent serious accidents involving children by changing the unsafe behavior of some drivers. Stop arm cameras have proven in other jurisdictions around the country to have that positive effect,” he said.

While the division hopes that the implementation issues around the stop arm camera program are resolved as soon as possible, the use of some buses with extended stop arms can help in improving safety, Foley said.

“We were one of two school divisions in the state to test the extended stop arm concept last fall,” Foley added. “The combination of the stop arm cameras and the use of extended stop arms would significantly improve our ability to keep our students as safe as possible,” he said.

The state department of education is reviewing the results of the extended stop arm pilot programs in Albemarle and is considering whether to authorize all school divisions in Virginia to institute similar programs in their areas.