Credit: Credit: Albemarle County Public Schools

A pilot program designed to improve safety conditions for children who enter or exit school buses has reduced the number of dangerous incidents on Albemarle County roads by more than 50 percent. The program involved the installation of extended stop arms that are three times as long as the stop arms currently in use on school buses throughout the Commonwealth.

To measure the impact of the longer stop arms, the transportation department for Albemarle County Public Schools lengthened the stop arms on 10 of its buses on various routes in the urban ring, as well as in Crozet, Scottsville, and the vicinity of Stone-Robinson Elementary School.

Over a test period during September, there were 118 violations by motorists who illegally passed a school bus while it was loading or unloading school children. This amounted to 0.81 daily violations for each of the 10 buses. This compares to 268 violations, or 1.79 per day, when the same buses on the same routes did not have the extended stop arms in use on the bus.

“These are incredibly encouraging results,” says Jim Foley, the Director of Transportation for the school division. “We know from the data that transporting students to and from school on a school bus is eight times safer than if students traveled in a passenger car. We also know that the single most significant step we can take to make school bus travel even safer is to eliminate those occurrences when motorists put school children at risk by ignoring the law that requires them to stop for a bus that is loading or unloading children,” he said.

Extended stop arms are a proactive measure, says Foley. They are more visible and can be seen earlier when deployed, as the pilot study indicated. Not only did more motorists stop for the school bus, but they stopped farther away from the front of the bus.

Albemarle County is one of two school divisions in Virginia that were authorized by the state Department of Education to modify their school buses to accommodate the extended stop arms. The results of the pilot study will be shared with a state committee that issues specifications for school buses. The committee can vote to permit any school division in Virginia to install extended stop arms as early as the 2018-19 school year.

Foley added that, if approved on a permanent basis, the number of school buses with extended stop arms could be increased to accommodate other areas of the county.

An Albemarle County Public Schools study done several years ago by its transportation department estimated that, each year, there are as many as 6,000 violations by motorists who ignore the flashing lights and stop arms that buses employ when students are entering or exiting a school bus.

Shortly thereafter, the School Board voted to ask the Board of Supervisors and the General Assembly to approve legislation that would allow for cameras to be installed on the outside of school buses to record violations by motorists who illegally pass a school bus. The program is similar to the red light cameras that the county and other jurisdictions use to enforce traffic laws. The camera records a violation, and a traffic summons is issued by mail.

Although both the Board of Supervisors and the General Assembly voted to authorize a school bus safety camera program, the implementation of the program has been delayed, because of the need for additional legislation that would specifically authorize the transfer of vehicle ownership information to the private contractor that operates the camera system.

“School bus safety camera programs have had a dramatic impact in other localities where the number of dangerous incidents of motorists speeding by a stopped school bus has been reduced. We are hopeful we will be able to move forward in the near future to add this capability to our continuing effort to keep children as safe as possible,” said Foley.