By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Taking a literal ride down memory lane is on my agenda this morning. I have to get up much earlier than usual, get ready for work and head for the school bus garage in Princeton so I can catch a bus with a state trooper. It’s all part of a program to crack down on motorists who don’t stop when a school bus is picking up children or dropping them off.
By law, drivers have to stop and wait when a school bus stops, puts on its flashing lights and deploys its stop sign. Whether you are in front of the bus or behind it doesn’t matter. You have to stop and wait until the stop sign is pulled back and the lights stop flashing. Even then, you need to be extra watchful because there may still be some children near the road. You never know what they might suddenly decide to do.
I’ve been caught behind school buses, so I know how frustrating that situation can get. You’ve got places to go and appointments to keep, and this school bus keeps stopping and holding up traffic. And it seems like every child that has to get off is sitting in the back of the bus. The kids don’t seem to be in a hurry and the irritation builds. Going around the bus is tempting, especially if you don’t see any kids.
Well, I can say from firsthand experience that you can suddenly find half a dozen children suddenly standing in front of you. I saw one of these close calls years ago when I rode aboard a Mercer County school bus.
I was on the bus to do a story about the responsibilities school bus drivers face every day. On that particular day, I met my ride at Wade Elementary School in Bluefield.
Wade School was still open and had a student body numbering in the hundreds of children. When I arrived in the school yard, teachers were lining up dozens of kids and making sure they reached their designated buses. The driver I was watching that day was a veteran of transporting children, but she was also a substitute that day.
“Substitute,” one boy said as he climbed aboard. “Substitute, substitute,” echoed through the bus as it filled up. However, she quickly let them know that she was a veteran substitute, so any ideas of getting rowdy died quickly.
I found a seat up front and talked to the driver as she proceeded down Bluefield Avenue. Soon we were past downtown Bluefield and traveling down Princeton Avenue. The bus stopped, the lights went on and the stop sign went out. Children got off, and parents were waiting for most of the time.
Then we got to a stop near the intersection with Grassy Branch Road. A long line of traffic had lined up behind us. About a half dozen students got to the door. The driver opened the door.
“Stop!” she yelled out. The children froze. A big white pick-up truck roared past the bus and kept going. If that bus driver hadn’t been so alert, those children would have been right in front of that truck. I tried to get the license plate, but it was gone too quickly.
Being a school bus driver is tough because you have to watch so many factors. Your young passengers usually have no sense of danger, so they are liable to do things that are distracting and dangerous. Then you are surrounded by other motorists whose sense of danger isn’t much better than that of the children. Too often they are in a hurry and not thinking that they might be putting lives in danger. School buses have special mirrors and even space bars on their fronts that deploy when children are getting on or off. The bar makes the children stay in the driver’s line of sight. The buses also have large rear view mirrors so drivers can see more of what’s around them.
None of these precautions matter if drivers recklessly ignore school bus stop signs and try to pass the bus. Yes, getting stuck behind a bus is annoying, but only annoying. Imagine getting ticketed for passing the bus. That would be a real annoyance. Hurting or killing a child would be traumatic, and that’s before the legal ramifications that will change your life forever.
Troopers riding along on school buses across the Mountain State will be watching for violations and sending the word out so other troopers can stop the violators. If you think you’re late already, get ready to be even later.
I’ve been in frustrating situations like getting stuck behind a school bus, but there’s usually nothing you can do but be patient. The frustration can’t be anything like the trauma and lifelong heartache of knowing you hurt a child. I don’t know what that feels like and I have no intention of finding out. Let’s hope this morning is uneventful and all the children reach school safely.
And let us all hope that every child gets home safely.
Greg Jordan is the Daily Telegraph’s senior reporter. Contact him a firstname.lastname@example.org