Flashes, Signals and Recognition: Part 2

There have been plenty of explanations for the phenomenon of school bus pass-bys. Among them is lax law enforcement, eroding increasingly as funding for such enforcement priorities have dwindled – despite an explosion of useful technology employed to simply enforce and practically guarantee conviction. But the dozens of crossing accidents I have examined as a forensic expert have convinced me that a principal reason that motorists fail to stop for engaged red flashers is that, accompanied only by amber signals (if then), they do not recognize them as traffic signals at all. Instead, motorists cite the fact that a large spectrum of other vehicles – construction vehicles, police cars, ambulances, utility vehicles – also possess and engage red and sometimes amber flashers. Further, there are no requirements for how long vehicles behind or in front of these buses will be expected to remain stopped until the flashers disengage. Because requirements for motorists confronting others vehicles with red and amber flashers are different, these drivers don’t always know or remember the procedures specific to school buses – and fear waiting for an extended period of time as they might at railroad crossings. Worse still, many students and parents think that the engagement of the red flashers is the signal for them to enter the roadway. Some school districts deliberately employ them for this purpose as a policy matter – as the transportation director did in the first accident scenario cited in Part 1 of this series.

To further enhance the effectiveness of red flashers, we have added both amber flashers and, later, stop arms to the equation – although many old buses without one or both are still deployed in states without retrofit provisions. The “mixed fleets” that these school districts and contractors deploy add yet more confusion to the meaning of the red flashers – for students and parents as well as motorists.

The level of carnage from these failures is grossly underreported because most crossing accident statistics (including those cited by the Kansas Department of Education and those included in a recent National Academy of Science report) count only those crossing-related fatalities and serious injuries where the students were struck by their own buses. Yet the vast majority of crossing victims are struck by third-party vehicles passing them. This point at least received an asterisk in the recent National Academy of Science report of which I was one of many co-authors – although duped victim would be a better characterization. And apart from recommendations for equipment, the issue of crossing received no attention in any of the last 70 years’ worth of National Conferences (or Congress) on School Transportation.

The full package of current crossing equipment and procedures in effect – red flashers, stop arms and amber flashers – would seem to provide enough information for an enlightened and responsible motorist. Yet it apparently doesn’t provide enough information for many motorists, particularly amidst errors made by drivers, school district and contractor management and, increasingly, software. A key to why it doesn’t is evident from the fact that, in comparison to school bus pass-bys, the percentage of motorists who ignore red traffic signals at tri-colored traffic lights is practically negligible. The most obvious conclusion one can draw from this is that many motorists recognize the rules that red traffic signals invoke only when those signals are packaged with both amber and green signals. Among other factors, when packaged with green signals, motorists confronting engaged red ones recognize that they will be retained for only a short and often predictable period of time – and have fewer motives to ignore them.

Part 3 of this series will further explore why the current array of crossing equipment is inadequate, and will identify what is clearly needed to stem the tide of a significant albeit unacknowledged volume of blood and gore. What is obviously missing may be illustrated by the fact that most of us regularly cruise in our private automobiles for minutes at a time, with our minds filled with who-knows-what – yet never “run through a red light.” Think hard about what’s missing from our equation. We shall explore it further in the next installment.

To their credit, most national mega-fleets contain only eight-way flasher systems and stop arms, as well as crossing control guards. The same is not true of many small contractors, and many school districts, large and small.

Publications: School Transportation News.