The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 15, 2013

School bus crashes raise concerns

Kathy Mellott

JOHNSTOWN — School bus collides with other vehicle – it has become a pretty frequent news item – so much so that local police departments and schools are expressing concern.

Earlier this week, a bus carrying Central Cambria School District students was in a three-vehicle crash on Route 22 east at Blue Spruce Road near the border with Indiana County.

The bus was stopped with its red lights activated. A vehicle failed to stop in time for the bus, swerved into the passing lane and came to stop beside the bus. A second eastbound vehicle failed to stop in time for the bus and hit both the bus and the first vehicle.

Fortunately, no one was hurt, said Central Cambria Superintendent Vincent DeLeo.

But in the fall, a truck driver failed to see an approaching bus carrying more than 20 Central Cambria students. The vehicles collided and 10 of the bus passengers were taken to the hospital for examination.

“We’ve had two accidents, and in neither one was our driver at fault,” DeLeo said.

School buses are big and yellow with flashing red signal lights. There’s a reason for that, said PennDOT Safety Director Pam Kane.

“We’re talking about a pretty hefty penalty (for violators). It’s a $250 fine and 60-day license suspension,” Kane said.

“But more than the fine, we’re talking about childrens’ lives.”

The greatest problem with school bus violators, at least in Cambria County, appears to be on four-lane highways where motorists likely become confused about whether they are required to stop, said Richland Township police Chief Michael Burgan.

“For us, it’s Scalp Avenue. I think it might be a misinterpretation of the law because it’s such a wide road,” Burgan said.

Richland Township police routinely patrol Scalp Avenue and other heavily traveled highways, and they don’t hesitate to write hefty tickets for motorists who fail to stop for school buses, he said.

“We don’t hide. We stay out in the open. And when they (motorists) go through the lights we pull them over,” Burgan said. “It’s about the kids, and we consider this to be a serious infraction.”

Adams Township Police Department and many others increase patrols when buses are on the roads – in the mornings and afternoons.

“Every day we’re there,” Adams Township police Chief Kirk Moss said.

His department patrols around the buildings in the Forest Hills School District.

Moss thinks much of the problem with accidents and violations involving school buses is due to distracted driving.

“It’s texting and using the cellphones, definitely,” Moss said.

Drivers need to start taking the flashing yellow lights on a bus for their intent, he said.

“People, when they see the yellow lights, they try to beat them. But it’s only a second until those red lights are on,” he said.

Kane agrees.

“It’s really important when you see that yellow light, start to slow down and maybe use the four-way flashers to let others know you are stopping,” she said.

Allowing a little distance when following a bus is equally important, she said.

“People need to allow some distance between them and the bus. Many crashes involving buses are rear-end collisions,” she said.

An increasing number of buses are equipped with cameras that can photograph illegally passing vehicles, Kane said.

Additionally, DeLeo said, his school bus drivers are encouraged, when possible, to jot down information about a driver violating state school bus laws. That information may be taken to a district judge.

Kane, who routinely conducts school bus safety initiatives, gets frustrated.

“It’s a great big yellow thing, but a lot of people don’t seem to know it,” she said.

State law

Motorists must:

• Stop at least 10 feet away from school buses that have red lights flashing.

• Stop when they are behind a bus, meeting the bus or approaching an intersection where a bus is stopped.

• Stop when following or traveling alongside a school bus until red lights stop flashing and all children have reached safety.

• If physical barriers such as grassy medians separate oncoming traffic, motorists in the opposite lanes may proceed without stopping.

• Penalty for violations are a $250 fine, five points on driving record and 60-day license suspension.

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