by Susan Mikula Campbell
Margaret A. Messer will never forget the dark winter morning about nine years ago when she stopped her school bus on Ward Road to pick up a third-grader.
The child, who had to cross the road to get to the bus, was concealed from view by motorists, because of the weak light and the snowbanks piled on both sides of the driveway.
"A car tried to beat me," she said. "Of course, I laid on the horn, but thankfully, the child knew enough not to come ... to wait for my signal."
Still, it was a heart-stopping moment for the woman who has been driving school buses for the Niagara-Wheatfield School Central District since 1997.
Messer is now the school district's head bus driver/safety coordinator and, unfortunately, she knows too many other school bus drivers with similar stories of close calls.
As a reminder to drivers to obey the law when they see school buses on the road, Niagara-Wheatfield's Transportation Department and local law enforcement will be participating in the statewide Operation Safe Stop on Wednesday, March 30. Police agencies will be on special alert watching for those who ignore school bus signals.
Operation Safe Stop tries to promote school bus safety through education and enforcement efforts. The cooperative project is supported by the state Governor's Traffic Safety Committee, state Education Department, New York Association for Pupil Transportation, state School Bus Contractors Association, the student transportation industry and state, county, city and local law enforcement agencies.
According to Messer, it is estimated 50,000 vehicles illegally pass New York state school buses every day. Between the years of 2002 through 2004, there were 69 students injured and one killed by motorists who passed stopped school buses. The first-time fine for illegally passing a school bus is $250 to $400, five points on the violator's license, and/or possibly 30 days in jail.
"Worse yet, the memory of hitting or killing a child may be one you carry for the rest of your life!" Messer said.
The driver who passed her school bus that winter day was obviously shaken by the close call and pulled over to the side of the road after he had passed the child waiting in the driveway. If the child had moved into the road, however, it would have been too late.
The school district does avoid having children cross roads whenever it is practical and possible. Messer said it is policy that bus routes are scheduled so children in the elementary grades, kindergarten to fifth grade, do not cross Lockport, River and Saunders Settlement roads. Bus routes are set up so children in grades kindergarten to 12 don't have to cross Niagara Falls Boulevard, Military and Shawnee roads because of both the size of the road and volume of traffic on those highways.
Drivers passing school buses is more of a problem in some locations than others.
River Road has always been an issue, Messer said. It's a thoroughfare for people going to work. "They get impatient and go around the bus," she said.
Many people don't seem to realize that traffic on both sides of the road has to stop for school buses, even when it is a four-lane highway. For instance, Niagara-Wheatfield does have drop offs of students on Packard Road near Kmart.
"People heading east don't even pay attention to the school bus; they keep on going," Messer said. "Cars are supposed to stop on both sides of the road; it doesn't matter if it's a four-lane highway."
Military Road is always a difficult area for school bus drivers. There, other drivers honestly don't take note of the school bus, she said, because they are too busy concentrating on where they are going and traffic turning into and out of all the businesses lining the road.
Niagara Falls Boulevard is a similar problem and on Lockport Road, near Ward, there have been some close calls when people actually drove on the shoulder of the road to get around a school bus.
School bus drivers are alert to the fact that not everybody obeys the law. They are trained to watch and made sure everyone comes to a complete stop before signaling the children to come aboard the bus or allowing them to get off the bus. Operation Save Stop is a reminder to motorists that a tragedy could easily happen if they try to cut corners on the law just to save a few seconds.
"It's very, very important for motorists to remember that kids are very unpredictable," said Michael Dallessandro, Niagara-Wheatfield Transportation Department supervisor.
It's important to stop and wait for the bus signal that all is clear, but to still be cautious, he said. He pointed out that a motorist might figure a child getting off a school bus will go directly up the driveway to his home, but the unexpected might happen. Something else might catch the child's attention, or he may drop some of his belongings.
"We need motorists to be on heightened alert when they're around school buses," Dallessandro said.