Southwest Allen County Schools is making its buses more difficult for other drivers to ignore during student pickups and drop-offs.
And it's added technology that, among other features, lets school bus drivers record stop-arm violations in real time.
Such offenses are a common – and potentially deadly – problem. Allen County school districts in 2019 launched a public service campaign targeting the illegal passing of school buses almost a year after three siblings were killed and a fourth child was seriously injured in 2018 by a driver who didn't stop for a stopped bus near Rochester in Fulton County.
Steve Lake, SACS transportation director, referenced that fatal crash when describing the equipment his district is investing in – illuminated school bus signs and fully illuminated stop arms from First Light Safety Products.
“There is no question that you will know it's a school bus from a quarter of a mile to half a mile away,” Lake said. “The visibility is incredible.”
Only one SACS bus had both features as of early December, but Lake said he plans to make that equipment standard on the district's fleet.
“I just believe in it that much,” Lake said, adding the increased visibility will be particularly beneficial in fog and heavy snow.
The cost is just under $2,000 per bus, he said, but expenses should be reduced by getting the products installed at the factory. SACS listed about two dozen buses in its most recent five-year bus replacement plan.
SACS isn't the only local district interested in increasing bus visibility. Fort Wayne Community Schools will consider the brighter equipment for its next bus order, said Frank Jackson, transportation director. Currently, the words “school bus” are reflective on the front and back of the district's buses, which have stop arms with LED lights illuminating the word “stop.”
SACS also has made it easier for bus drivers to record stop-arm violations. All it takes is a tap on a tablet, Lake said, and that information can easily be shared with law enforcement.
“I can print them up a map that shows them every place that this GPS has been marked,” Lake said.
The tablets, which were new this academic year, offer other functions, including a turn-by-turn routing system, a feature that is especially useful to substitute drivers. The district runs about 60 routes, Lake said, and some people jump from route to route to route.
“For them to be able to hop in there and push a button and pick a route, it's extremely helpful, especially in Lafayette Township,” he said, referring to the district's more rural township.
Drivers are required to complete pre- and post-trip inspections of their buses, checking the exterior and interior lights, brakes, tires, seats and more. Now, Lake said, drivers indicate whether items passed or failed inspection, and the system promptly notifies district mechanics of any issues.
East Allen County Schools also has outfitted bus drivers with tablets. Drivers use the devices to access routes and to clock in and out, EACS spokeswoman Tamyra Kelly said.
Even so, as one of a few districts with an entire fleet equipped with tablets, SACS is attracting attention from other districts. Lake said he recently took another transportation director for a ride to demonstrate the turn-by-turn feature.
FWCS is exploring turn-by-turn tablet technology, Jackson said, and the district hopes to pilot it this school year.
The system isn't flawless, Lake said, but “when it works, it's wonderful.”