Drivers, police emphasize danger of passing buses
Terry Gleason knows how it is: You’re late, you’re behind a school bus, you’re just getting up to speed and — bam, there go the red lights and stop sign.
But however sympathetic he might be, the 22-year bus driver is urging you not to ignore those lights and speed on past.
“There are a lot of students who ride a lot of buses, and the lack of safety, basically, for these students — it’s just like some people don’t care,” said Gleason, 64. “These kids’ safety is just as much in their hands as it is in ours.”
In the 20 years he has been driving for Greater Albany Public Schools, and the two before that for the Woodburn school district, Gleason has seen a gradual rise in incidents of driver bad behavior. Whether that’s because of more traffic, increased distractions or simply less patience, he doesn’t know.
Even driving a special education bus as he does now, which goes door to door to pick up children, Gleason sees plenty of violations of Oregon’s school bus traffic laws. The situation worsens when he drives a regular route, which stops at larger collection points.
On Tuesday, he switched routes with Lyn Grice to prove that point. Grice’s route includes several stops along Pacific Boulevard south of Queen Avenue as it travels, picking up some 40 students each morning to go to West Albany High and Memorial Middle schools.
“How sad is that?” Gleason sighed, as he pulled up to a stop heading north on Pacific, about a block shy of the light at 34th Avenue, and two cars zipped by on the left.
Earlier, headed south, a Ford pickup veered around the back of Gleason’s bus, sped past on the left, then cut in front to make a right turn onto 53rd with merely a tap on the brakes.
It’s a good thing, Gleason said, that it was just a mere tap. Any more slowing and Gleason would have had to hit his own brakes. And it just isn’t possible to make a rapid stop in a 77-passenger conventional bus, even when it isn’t full of teenagers.
The pickup driver did, at least, activate his turn signal. Not everyone does. Gleason suspects that some motorists trying to get around a bus deliberately don’t signal because they think the bus driver will speed up so they can’t get over.
“We’re trained, when people come into the other lane, if they turn on their turn signals and let us know enough in advance, we’ll let them in,” Gleason said.
Director Chris Ellison of the school district’s transportation department said bus drivers make every effort to get off the road before picking up or dropping off students. But in the absence of a turnout, such as on Pacific Boulevard, drivers have no choice but to stop on the road itself.
“Drivers who have stops on busy arterials instruct the students not to dawdle or take their time in boarding the bus. The students are to select the first seat they come to to minimize the time we are holding up traffic while boarding,” Ellison said. “We really try to be vigilant about this as we like to be good neighbors and ambassadors of the school district.”
Ellison said he can understand the confusion of a motorist forced to stop on the opposite side of a four-way highway from a school bus going the other direction.
In Albany, he said, a bus driver would turn around and go to the opposite side of the highway rather than expect a child to cross those four lanes to get on or off the bus.
But other parts of the state, particularly very rural areas, have routes that do involve such potentially dangerous crossings, Ellison said, and the law has to be the same for everyone.
“The fact of the matter is, traffic has to stop,” he said. “We simply can’t have two sets of laws.”
The city’s main arterial roads are the worst areas for bus-motorists conflicts, according to citation statistics and the GAPS bus garage.
During the 2010-11 school year, Albany police officers issued three citations to drivers illegally passing school buses: one at the intersection of 14th Avenue and Geary, one in the 3200 block of Pacific S.W. and one in the 1500 block of Waverly. This year so far, just one citation: at the corner of Knox Butte and Clover Ridge.
Police write citations only if they witness the act, but they also can, and do, send warning letters to motorists if a bus driver sees the violation and can identify the make, model and license plate of the offender.
The Albany Police Department sent out 17 such warning letters in 2010, 37 in 2011 and 12 so far this year, according to APD records.
The school district’s transportation department took part last April in a national one-day count of cars illegally passing a stopped bus. The total vehicle violation count for Oregon that day: 1,888.
And when the bus pulls up at the school, ready to let kids off? Bus drivers say motorists are often just as inconsiderate even then.
Parents block the bus lanes, or whip around the buses as the students disembark, Gleason said. Yet students are even more likely to dart in front of traffic here.
“It’s the safety of the students they should be looking out for, not, ‘How fast can I get to work,’ or, ‘Can I get around this guy,’” he said.
Said Ellison: “We don’t want to inconvenience anyone, but if we do, it is because of student safety.”