In a Seattle Hill area neighborhood, Penny Creek Elementary students arrive safely home Wednesday afternoon on their school bus, driven by Durham driver Sean Curran. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

In a Seattle Hill area neighborhood, Penny Creek Elementary students arrive safely home Wednesday afternoon on their school bus, driven by Durham driver Sean Curran. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

School-bus drivers say they fear for kids as cars speed by

The sun is rising a bit later, setting a bit sooner. Mornings are often foggy now. Rain is on its way. Vacation time is over, and school is back in session.

Fall is a harried time on roadways. Yet despite the dangers, drivers continue to rush, rush, rush.

Two veteran bus drivers in the Edmonds School District say the results they see from their perches are scary and frustrating.

Drivers who speed through school zones, don’t look both ways before turning, fail to stop for students at crosswalks or look at their cellphones.

“I think it’s been more prevalent lately, the last few years. People are hurrying to get their kids to school and off to where they’re going. They’re distracted and not paying attention,” said Cathy Ward, a bus driver for almost 39 years.

And the bright yellow school bus?

“We’re just big and large and an obstacle,” said Robin Gossett, a fellow driver of almost 20 years.

Local safety experts urge commuters to resist the rush and slow down to help protect students heading to and from school.

This is a particularly dangerous time of year.

“It’s sort of a mix of things,” said Doug Dahl, Washington Traffic Safety Commission’s Target Zero manager for Whatcom and Island counties.

The first big rain will lift oils and extra debris on roads. Extracurricular school activities start to line up with dusk, a time when visibility is poor.

Surveys show the numbers of families walking or biking to school continues to grow. About 15 percent of students walked or biked in 2013, compared to 12 percent in 2007, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School.

More inexperienced drivers are on the road, too, as newly licensed teens make their way to and from high school and activities.

“If we drive with the same behavior we’ve developed all summer, we can be caught by surprise with the lack of light or number of people on the roads,” Dahl said.

A relatively dry start to the school year has helped. But fall weather will come soon enough.

“I think (drivers) get caught off-guard by the weather. We live in Washington, so we should be used to it. But we so quickly get used to nice weather. We get surprised,” Dahl said.

Others echo his sentiments.

Their message? Put down the cellphone. Leave earlier. Pay attention. Go slow.

“A lot of times we rush, thinking it’s going to solve something. … The amount (of time) you save by hurrying because you didn’t give yourself enough time doesn’t offset enough to make it worth it,” Dahl said.

A few other safety tips for drivers:

• Pedestrians have the right of way.

• Not all crosswalks are marked.

• Don’t double park.

• Use designated areas for dropping off and picking up students.

• Carpool to reduce congestion.

• Turn on your headlights.

Even on a sunny day, turning on your headlights makes it easier for bus drivers and pedestrians to see your vehicle, the Edmonds bus drivers said.

Local laws differ on specifics but, in general, drivers also should prepare to slow down to 20 mph near a school.

A video from the Boise Police Department illustrates why 20 mph makes a difference.

Several local police departments planned extra enforcement in school zones as classes got under way.

“There’s always a little bit of adjustment that first week back to school. We had quite a few stops and had some education opportunities with drivers — and some students,” mainly around crosswalks, said Kelly Chelin, a Mill Creek spokeswoman.

When to stop for a school bus is a perennial source of confusion.

After getting a question about the issue at his Bellingham office, Dahl created a handy graphic to illustrate the rules.

When a school bus has the stop sign out and the red lights flashing, drivers are required to stop:

• On two-lane, undivided roads, in both directions.

• On roads that are divided in order to separate the directions of travel, in the direction that the bus is traveling.

• On roads with three or more lanes, in the direction the bus is traveling.

Drivers headed in the opposite direction do not have to stop on divided and multi-lane roads because the law prohibits bus drivers from making a stop that requires a child to cross those types of roads, Dahl noted. That includes roadways with a center turn lane.

Illegally passing a school bus can get you a $419 ticket, for starters. Under state law, that fine can’t be reduced, he added.

Bus drivers try to be courteous. But when it’s time to put out the “Stop” arm, it’s time, Gossett said.

“We have yellow lights on our bus that are activated prior to our red light, and that is a warning — we are at some point going to be stopping … and loading and unloading children,” she said. “It’s not a warning for you to speed up and rush by.”

Drivers need to remember the reason for the road rules, Ward added.

“It’s for the children. They’re stopping for the children — not because the bus is in the way. They need to look past the bus and see why they need to stop,” she said.

Melissa Slager: 425-339-3432; mslager@heraldnet.com.

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