ELLSWORTH — The video footage from the school bus is not of great quality, but it is enough to tell the story.
As it makes its way along a winding ridge-top road, the bus comes to a stop to let a child off. Icons flash on the screen as yellow warning lights come on and are then replaced with flashing red lights once the bus stops.
One car coming from the other direction goes past the bus after this, followed closely by a second. The bus driver blows his horn at both.
The child being dropped off walks in front of the bus just after this, and perhaps thinking the horn was being blown at him, he looks at the bus driver and raises his arms and shakes them as he makes his way across the street.
What the child does not see is a third car coming toward him as he walks, and which like the two before it also fails to stop.
The bus driver hits the horn again, and the child barely avoids being struck by the car. He stops, steps back and pauses before looking both ways and completing his crossing.
“Oh my God!” the bus driver exclaims.
That particular incident happened in West Virginia in 2008, but it illustrates a problem that remains today around the country — including in Ellsworth.
Donald Saunders, director of transportation for the Ellsworth School Department, said city school bus drivers took part in a nationwide survey one day this spring.
The survey was organized by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. This spring, 96,540 bus drivers in 33 states plus the District of Columbia reported 74,421 instances of school buses being illegally passed.
When those numbers are multiplied out across the school year, the national group said they “point to more than 13 million violations among America’s motoring public.”
“This survey captured only a fraction of the violations that bus drivers and traffic officers know all too well are occurring each and every day throughout the United States,” said Leon Langley, the group’s president. “It verifies that, unfortunately, motorists continue to pass school buses at an alarming rate.”
Of the 10 bus drivers in Ellsworth, eight of them reported cars passing them when they had their red lights on while picking up or dropping off kids.
“It is a problem everywhere,” said Saunders, who identified McGowan’s Hill on Route 1A, the Bucksport Road and the stretch of State Street near the entrance to Ellsworth High School as particularly bad spots in the city.
It is a problem, one that puts students’ safety in jeopardy, but it is also a criminal offense. Maine law states that a driver, whether on a road, “in a parking area or on school property,” shall stop his or her vehicle “before reaching the school bus” when its red lights are flashing.
“The operator may not proceed until the school bus resumes motion or until signaled by the school bus operator to proceed,” the law states.
A driver found to be in violation of this law is not subject to a traffic ticket. Instead, a violation is considered a misdemeanor criminal offense, and will result in the driver being summoned to court.
If police catch up with the vehicle after a bus driver has given them a plate number, and they cannot determine who the driver was at the time of the offense, the registered owner of the vehicle can get a traffic ticket with an associated fine.
Police are involved in trying to crack down on the problem. Police Chief Pete Bickmore said officers are following buses to watch for any violations.
“We’re out there,” he said. “We’re going to be aggressive with drivers, and we have a zero-tolerance approach.”
Saunders said many drivers, when spoken to afterward, will say something to the effect of, “Oh my God, I never even saw it!” in regard to the bus. He said that it is alarming, given that the bus is a large yellow vehicle, stopped in the middle of the road with red lights flashing and a red stop sign deployed on the side.
“If you miss that, you must have really been doing something in the front seat of your car besides driving,” said Saunders, a former longtime drivers license examiner for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
Saunders is taking steps he thinks could help address the problem. He would like to see state law changed to allow school buses to be outfitted with so-called wig-wag headlights, the kind found on police cruisers, in the hopes they would better catch the attention of oncoming drivers.
Such headlights would cost about $200 per bus, Saunders said. That is cheaper than putting cameras on the stop signs on each bus, which he said would cost about $500 per bus.
The headlights also would help avoid problems, Saunders said, rather than just capture them as a camera would.
“We would certainly like to have drivers comply, rather than have our drivers be in court and serve as a witness for the prosecution,” he said.
In Texas, the McKinney Independent School District added 6-foot-long arms with two stop signs on them to its school buses and saw an improvement in the number of drive-by violations. School officials told TV station KDSK they saw the number of violations drop from 20 each day to about seven or eight.
“We feel like it’s made a huge impact for our kids,” said district spokesman Cody Cunningham.
Locally, Saunders also is working with drivers to implement safe crossing practices with students. Whenever possible, drivers work to drop students off on the “ditch side” of the road, meaning the same side that their residence is on, so they won’t have to cross traffic. Sometimes that cannot be avoided, however.
In those cases, Saunders said drivers are working to have students go 10 steps in front of the bus, then look to the driver to get a thumbs-up sign to cross the road halfway. At that point, the child should then look again to the driver, who will give a second thumbs-up to complete the crossing once it is safe for the child to do so.
“That’s what we’re attempting to do,” said Saunders, adding that he is looking at having an assembly at school so that students can see the process acted out in front of them.