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Rule for Hernando school buses ignores greater danger

School buses are basically rolling warning signs: Painted yellow, the color of caution; equipped with lights that advertise their presence and their precious cargo; saving their most powerful signal — the jutting, red-flashing stop sign — for the crucial moment when children board and traffic must come to a halt.

Ignoring all this is the road's ultimate taboo, and even careless drivers tend to pay attention around school buses.

Still, a lot of parents will tell you the same thing about the moment they release their kids to cross the street and get on board: It's the scariest of the day.

That's because, even if statistics show buses are far safer than personal vehicles, we remember the tragedies.

In September, 13-year-old Kaitlyn Harper, a West Hernando Middle School student, was struck by a pickup truck and killed as she walked to a bus stop (though not her assigned one) on California Street.

This is one reason I listened to Debra Boggs of Weeki Wachee, who called last week to say she thought a district policy designed to make getting on and off buses safer had actually added to the danger.

Boggs, 50, and her 7-year-old grandson, Christopher Layman, live on Waverly Road — a quiet, dead-end street off Shoal Line Boulevard.

For years, she said, school buses stopped at the intersection. This year, though, the bus began stopping 50 to 25 feet short of the intersection.

Shoal Line, like California, is a busy, two-lane road without shoulders, she said, and the steeply sloping roadsides make it hard to find a safe place to walk or stand.

I went out to have a look Tuesday afternoon, and just watching Boggs and Christopher navigate from the bus stop back to Waverly made me nervous.

And I'm not the only one who is concerned: 103 residents along Shoal Line signed Boggs' petition objecting to the policy.

Its purpose, said Hernando schools transportation director Linda Smith, is to avoid bus stops at intersections. These leave buses vulnerable to being broadsided, she said, because their safety signals aren't directed at traffic coming from either side.

The policy has long been required by the state; the district just put in extra effort to make sure it was followed this year.

This sounded reasonable and responsible, as does the district's overall response to Kaitlyn's death. It surveyed bus drivers to find potential trouble spots, including those, like the stretch of California, without adequate lighting.

Along with the county, the district is planning the following improvements: installing lighting at 12 stops, mowing or grading 22 more, and putting in concrete pads at several others, including the stop on Waverly — where the county will also cut a walking path along Shoal Line.

But I happen to know some buses still stop at intersections, because they stop at the end of my quiet road, south of Brooksville.

Like Waverly, this enters a busy two-lane road.

And no matter what the experts say, in this case as in Boggs', the danger of a bus being broadsided seems tiny compared with what might happen if students are asked to walk up and down the roadside.

Frankly, I like our drivers' approach. And you have to wonder: If ignoring a safety rule is sometimes safer than following it, should it really be a rule?

Rule for Hernando school buses ignores greater danger 11/01/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 7, 2008 12:37pm]
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