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Stop for the buses: Children put at risk by drivers who ignore the law

When a school bus has its stop arm out, as demonstrated by Anneliese Schmidt Flournoy at Harlow's Bus Service garage in Dickinson on Tuesday, all drivers must stop to allow the safe loading and unloading of students. Bus drivers are seeing more and more drivers ignoring this law.

A 2009 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, the latest available, states that on average 19 children die in school transportation-related accidents each year. Harlow's Bus Service manager Burton Lewton and his crew in Dickinson are worried that Dickinson Public Schools students will become part of that statistic if area drivers don't start following the law and stopping for in-service school buses.

"We try to get them to stop by pointing at the sign. People are flipping us off. People are mad at us," Lewton said. "Any time you load or unload a child, a stop arm has to be out -- any."

Since the oil boom began, Lewton and his drivers have witnessed more drivers passing school buses when the eight red lights are flashing, which is illegal in North Dakota. Drivers are allowed to pass buses when the four yellow lights are on.

"There's no respect for the school bus and the children," Lewton said. "I've killed a kid in a car accident; you never forget it and you suffer the rest of your life from it."

There is a $100 fine and an accumulation of six points to a driver's license for violating the bus law.

When driving the handicap-accessible bus, Anneliese Schmidt Flournoy has seen drivers pass her on the right.

"That's the side the lift is getting dropped on," Flournoy said.

The school district makes sure students are cautious of traffic when traveling in and out of Dickinson, Superintendent Doug Sullivan said.

"We always talk to the students about watching for the traffic and making sure that it's safe to enter a bus and exit a bus and cross the street," Sullivan said.

Killdeer Public School experienced a large spike in drivers ignoring the bus' stop signs when the boom began, Superintendent Gary Wilz said.

"I was having up to three or four incidents in a month" after the start of the Bakken development, Wilz said. Before that, the school district "maybe had one or two incidents in an entire year."

"And I maintain about the same bus numbers, anywhere from seven to eight rural routes," Wilz said.

With the help of oil companies cracking down on employee misconduct while using the same roads as school buses and the county making bus stops safer, the incidents have come down to about one per month, Wilz said.

"We go to bus collect or bus pick-up points, so families bring their kids there as opposed to us driving into every yard," Wilz said. "The county has created bus pull-outs or turnarounds ... we don't have to keep the bus out there with the stop arms and block county traffic or highway traffic."

Killdeer Public School is also participating in the Trooper on a Bus program with Killdeer city police, Dunn County sheriff's deputies and the North Dakota Highway Patrol to help catch offenders, Wilz said.

"Just the fact that the highway patrol especially has given notice -- I think it's all working," Wilz said.

The Stark County Sheriff's Office has been trying to keep extra tabs on buses when out in the county, Capt. Dean Franchuk said.

"When the school bus is stopped, be cautious. Make sure you stop," Franchuk said. "The registered owner is obligated to say who was driving. If they get reported, they can be cited."

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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