With more than 90,000 Hillsborough County students riding school buses when the new school year starts on Tuesday, the Sheriff's Office is imploring drivers to stay alert with "Got Brakes?" — a new public awareness campaign and video about when to stop for school buses.
Hillsborough is one of the 10 largest school districts in the country, said Capt. Chad Chronister, and "our deputies can't be everywhere all the time."
About 1,000 of the district's 1,411 buses run each day, said John Franklin, general manager of the Hillsborough County schools transportation department. The buses make two stops, once before school and once after, at each of the county's 20,000 pick up/drop off spots for a total of 40,000 stops.
One of the biggest points of confusion is what drivers should do when they're traveling in the opposite direction of a bus, Chronister said.
"Raised median, proceed with caution," he said. "Anything besides a raised median, you must come to a complete stop."
Vehicles driving in the same direction as the bus should always stop. The same goes for vehicles on a road with a joint center turning lane.
"They think they can use it to pass the school bus," Chronister said, but the law says to stop.
The Sheriff's Office wrote about 100 citations for school bus infractions between August 2012 and August 2013.
"That's 100 out of 20,000 crosses. How many people truly passed that bus and put kids in danger because they don't know or they're simply being impatient?" Chronister asked.
Penalties vary depending on the infraction. For a first offense, it's $165 for a left-hand pass and $265 for a right-hand pass.
The Sheriff's Office sees problems with motorists throughout the county, Chronister said.
"It's pretty comparable all over," he said. "Rural areas, inner-city areas, it's the same."
Not only do drivers need to stop for buses, but they need to be patient. Loading and unloading a wheelchair onto a bus, for example, takes time.
"They could be sitting behind a bus waiting for 10 minutes because it takes time to situate exceptional students with disabilities," Franklin, of the transportation department, said.
Practice run Monday
The transportation department will do a practice run of bus routes on Monday, the day before school starts for students. Bus drivers will run their routes at the scheduled times and the department will make route adjustments as needed.
Bus drivers also go over safety rules with students, and schools do bus evacuation training during the school year, Franklin said.
The department encourages schools to celebrate National School Bus Safety Week in October, and safety tips are available on the transportation department's website.
"We need people to be aware because where there are buses, there are students," Franklin said. "And where there are students, they need to be extra cautious."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2453.