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Sunday, October 22, 2017, 12:33 p.m.

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Prepare to stop

Flashing Red. Kids Ahead. promotes bus safety

By Jillian McGehee

This article was published August 13, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.

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Tom Farmer, transportation director for the Bryant Public Schools, holds a sign for the statewide safety campaign Flashing Red. Kids Ahead. As children head back to school, the program works to remind drivers it is illegal to pass a stopped school bus that is flashing red lights. The misdemeanor violation could result in jail time and the loss of one’s driver’s license.

In light of the busy schedules people have these days, distracted driving is a common problem. Being aware of and ready to slow down for a school bus is important as school buses return to the roads. It’s a good time to get familiar with the statewide campaign Flashing Red. Kids Ahead.

The initiative was established by Tom Farmer, transportation director for the Bryant Public Schools, and others about five years ago. The campaign’s main goal, aside from promoting safety, is to remind drivers of the penalties they could face if they pass a stopped school bus.

“The [transportation] state director at the time, Mike Simmons, came to the office and said there was some legislation about bus safety that needed promoting, but there was no funding available,” Farmer said. “We sat in the office and discussed what we could do to get people’s attention in such a way that every child in the state would be safe when they load and unload from a school bus.”

Farmer noted that a school bus is known as the safest form of transportation, and it’s the outside forces that present danger, such as distracted drivers.

Passing a stopped school bus is a serious offense in Arkansas. In 2005, the Legislature passed Isaac’s Law, named after a Benton boy who was killed by a motorist who failed to stop when the boy’s bus stopped and he began walking home.

A motorist who illegally passes a school bus is guilty of a misdemeanor and could face jail time and loss of one’s driver’s license. Motorists are charged with negligent homicide if death occurs as a result of passing a stopped school bus, the law states.

The transportation experts decided commercials would be the best way to bring awareness to the dangers students face when they get on and off a school bus. Farmer credits Sherrie Benton, who works in transportation in all phases except driving, for the name of the campaign.

The community rallied in support, and local car dealer Everett Buick GMC helped create a professionally developed commercial.

Now each July, Farmer said, people call, saying the crew needs to get rolling with the campaign in time for the start of school.

Farmer, who’s been transportation director at Bryant for 24 years, said the safest feature any school district has on a school bus is the driver.

“You see, if the driver does not go that extra mile to ensure that everything on the bus is doing what it is supposed to when it is supposed to, then you really do not have a very safe bus. The driver is the most important safety feature on the bus,” Farmer said. “This is why every driver has to go through a pre-employment 24-hour training process, be drug-screened, have a physical, get a background check and then go to a three-hour bus-safety class every year sponsored by the state of Arkansas.”

The safest thing for students is to have the same driver day after day because that driver knows the routes and the students, Farmer said.

“Sure, we can get another driver who knows the safety rules and operations on the bus, but the sub does not always know when [the bus comes] to a stop that Grandpa or Grandma is always there to pick up, and today is not, and the child gets off anyway, or the sub does not know which child needs to cross the road.”

Students learn the drill and how the bus procedure works, but the bus’s eight-way light system is the way to communicate to the rest of the public, Farmer said.

“When the amber lights are flashing, slow down and be cautious, and know that the school bus is about to stop. Some people think this means speed up and get around the bus, which is furthest from the truth,” Farmer said. “Then once the bus stops and the driver opens the door, the red lights come on, which means stop.

“Then once the students exit the bus, we want them to go home, or if they have to cross the street, they need to get about 10 feet in front of the bus and look at the driver to make sure it is safe to cross the street.”

To help ensure that things get going at a smooth, safe pace at the start of the school year, Farmer said, bus drivers travel much more slowly on routes than normal.

“We have families move in during the summer months and are not familiar where the actual bus stop is, so we try to get them to school and then work it out later. Even though the schools do a great job of letting people know where the stops are, there will be people who just do not get the information. So one concern we have every year is that we get all students to school first; then we work out the bugs.”

Drivers are encouraged to drive their routes one week before school starts to ensure familiarity with the road and any obstacles, such as construction. This practice also helps make people aware that school is about to start and gets the attention of students who might be riding the bus, Farmer said.

From 5,200 to 5,400 students in the Bryant School District are bus riders, Farmer said.

“The number increases every year at the beginning of the year, but once students change their age to 16 and begin driving, it decreases some,” he said. “Students are not eligible to ride a bus if they live within the established 2-mile zone from their school.”

Taking the “it takes a community to raise a child” approach when it comes to school-bus safety, Farmer said there are several things the community can do to help keep all kids safe:

• Encourage all drivers to slow down and pay attention to the communication the buses send out during a bus route.

• Be patient.

• Teach students how to get to the bus safely, to stop about 10 feet from the road and how to get on and off quickly and to never approach the bus until the driver gives the thumbs-up signal.

• Encourage students to get to their assigned seats and face the front of the bus in a timely manner and use the handrail. If they have to cross the road, they need to get about 10 feet in front of the bus and wait until the driver gives them the signal to proceed across.

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