Sept. 28, 2019 — Red lights, especially flashing red lights, are a clear expectation that people on the road should stop. This is especially true when those red lights are on a on a school bus that is stopped — or so Siuslaw School District wants to remind area drivers. Now, working with the shared Florence Police Department and Siuslaw School District position of School Resource Officer (SRO) Brandon Bailey, Siuslaw Transportation Supervisor Tammy Trenholm is driving up awareness for a serious issue in this community.
“People aren’t stopping for school buses,” Trenholm said. “This is a problem we want to bring light to. We’re addressing it.”
Statistics from the last school year show that many drivers failed to stop adequately on area roads and highways.
In the 2018-19 school year, there were 294 red light runners on the district’s bus routes. Of those, 37 drivers were contacted and submitted statements to enforcement, and approximately half of these resulted in a citation.
Since reporting red light runners falls on school bus drivers, who also have to focus on student safety and road conditions, not every license plate gets fully recorded, or properly.
“It’s difficult for the drivers to see the plate number and recite it correctly while driving,” Trenholm said.
This school year, Trenholm and Bailey have come up with a solution.
“A couple times a month, the police department is going to fund having police officers following school buses on problematic routes to enforce the stop law,” Bailey said.
These vehicles will patrol with the school bus, and may not be visible to drivers. In addition, they may be out for both morning and afternoon routes.
“That supports our department in such a huge way,” Trenholm said. “If the community knew the Florence Police Department was doing that, it might give them one more thought of, ‘Hmm, it could be today when law enforcement is following buses.’ This should force people to start paying attention.”
It’s all about safety: for students who may be crossing busy streets, the buses and the other drivers themselves.
The National Safety Council advises that drivers maintain a greater following distance behind school buses, which should give adequate time to stop once the yellow caution lights start flashing.
“It is illegal in all 50 states to pass a school bus that is stopped to load or unload children,” reports the council. “Never pass a bus from behind — or from either direction if you’re on an undivided road — if it is stopped to load or unload children. If the yellow or red lights are flashing and the stop arm is extended, traffic must stop.”
According to Trenholm, drivers should give plenty of space in front of the bus for students to cross, which to her means close to 50 feet.
The National Safety Council continues, “The area 10 feet around a school bus is the most dangerous for children; stop far enough back to allow them space to safely enter and exit the bus. Be alert; children often are unpredictable, and they tend to ignore hazards and take risks.”
Despite these clear rules, there seems to be local confusion on what to do on a highway.
Trenholm was clear that the bus stops on Highways 101 and 126 are all in spots where the highway is considered “undivided” — which means that all traffic, across all lanes, must stop when the red lights are on.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 10 lanes across, you still have to stop,” Bailey added.
This includes north of Florence near Fred Meyer, one problem area, and south of Florence in Glenada.
“We get red light runners through there one after the next after the next,” Trenholm said. “People just come roaring by.”
And it can be hard to predict when people will run the red lights.
Siuslaw’s first school bus leaves the bus barn by 6:30 a.m. each school day, with the rest of the buses operating between then and 8:30 a.m. In the afternoons, buses are active between 2:30 and 4 p.m. In total, the school district has 10 regular bus routes and three special education routes, all operated by the district’s 18 school buses.
“The buses are all over the place; that’s the thing,” Trenholm said. “They come in from rural, and then they’re on the city streets. Everybody has a different schedule and it’s so varied. Any place you are in town at any time, you could come across a bus.”
“When in doubt, stop,” Bailey advised. “When you see the flashing yellow lights, that’s a sign to proceed with caution. Law requires you to stop when the red lights come on.”
To help increase safety and mitigate red light citations, Siuslaw’s newest buses have added more flashing lights in hopes of increasing visibility.
It’s a new standard, Trenholm said, and just one step Siuslaw has made. Another has been to move to all same-side stops so fewer students have to cross the street. This was implemented last year.
“We also avoid stops on Highway 101 in town,” she said. “We make all the students walk back a block to a side street. But once we get out of town, we have no other options but Highway 101.”
For the most part, these locations have plenty of sight distance.
“Even on the secondary highways and county roads, if we see something that doesn’t meet our standards, we won’t put a crossing there,” Trenholm said. “We all want to enhance safety.”
Bailey added, “The transportation department has been initiating a lot of things for those specific reasons. We just need people to drive better.”
“People are not paying attention,” Trenholm agreed. “I don’t know what it is, since it’s a big yellow bus with flashing lights all over it. And our new buses have added even more flashing red lights. Instead of it just staying, ‘Stop when red lights flash,’ they actually have an illuminated light that says it. We’re really trying to enhance safety, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference.”
Of those 37 people who delivered driver’s statements after getting reported for running red lights, many listed distractions or lack of attention as the reason they did not stop, as opposed to those who were unaware of stopping rules on undivided highways.
According to Bailey, “The law is strict with any distracted driving. As long as the police can articulate the distraction, it doesn’t matter what it is. So many people have dogs in their laps when they drive around. You can’t drive like that. One, if you get in a crash and an airbag goes off, that dog is going through you. And two, it’s 100 percent distracted driving and going to impair your ability to drive.”
Mobile phones also continue to be a problem. In recent years, Oregon Department of Transportation has been making signs and billboards getting out the message: “Before you start your car, park your phone.”
“People are more concerned with what’s going on inside their car,” Trenholm said. “They aren’t plugged into what’s going on and are not being cognizant when they’re in their vehicles. And they can’t be. We’re hoping awareness will help with so many people. This year, we’re taking action to try to improve safety with what we’re seeing out there.”
In the coming months, drivers should expect to see more law enforcement from Florence Police Department along bus routes, at any time of day.
“The department pays overtime for officers to come in and follow problematic school buses,” Bailey said. “These are what we observe in our operations. Sometimes we have nothing, and sometimes we have two or three people who get cited for blowing through the stop signs.”
Trenholm said the school district used to work with Oregon State Police on the more rural routes, but having Bailey as the district’s dedicated officer has been vital to increasing safety and communications.
“One of the biggest things about having the SRO program is the district has a direct contact with law enforcement, when in the past, they didn’t,” Bailey said. “Now, they have me for 100 percent of whatever the situation needs.”
Trenholm added, “Officer Bailey also comes to our drivers’ meetings, sometimes. We have a forum where they relay what they’re seeing and he can offer answers or support. It’s been really effective for my department.”
This is the third year for the grant that funded the SRO program for the city and school district, and the entities will likely apply for continued funding.
“I can’t imagine us not having an SRO at this point, but right now, this is the last year of the grant,” Bailey said. “The police department is 50 percent and the school district is 50 percent of the wage, so we hope we get the grant again if the City of Florence applies for it.”
Besides working with students, teachers, families and staff of the Siuslaw School District and running regular patrol duties as a Florence police officer, Bailey will be one of the officers patrolling problematic bus routes.
“We’re glad to be working with law enforcement, and they’re here to support our schools,” Trenholm said. “They’re going to be out there.”