Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a two-part series on stop-arm violations in the Westonka school district.
It’s long been reported that children are much safer riding to school in a school bus than in any other vehicle. It’s a statistic touted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and one the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) also notes – before going on to report that more children are killed in the “danger zone” around the bus than they are as riders on the bus.
Deaths from school stop arm violations remain rare – only one such death was reported in Minnesota in 2018 and none were reported in the state for 2019.
But police, bus drivers and parents all caution that every violation is a heightened chance for it to happen again.
“In almost every case where something does change in a city, it’s after a student dies or after a student has been injured. Then suddenly it’s a problem,” said Brenda Coser, a Spring Park resident whose daughter, a Grandview middle schooler, had her backpack clipped by a passing vehicle earlier this school year. “We just want awareness out there.”
Minnesota is one of the few states that has responded to a national survey on stop arm violations every year since the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) introduced the survey in 2011. The survey asks state officials to gather and submit all reported violations statewide for a single day in spring.
Last April 17, 2,360 Minnesota school bus drivers reported 625 stop arm violations, or a rate of 26 percent. That’s well below the national average for those states reporting: 72.8 percent, a rate largely driven by California, Nevada and Hawaii, each of which had more reports of violations than they did drivers reporting.
In the Midwest, Minnesota was in line with Wisconsin (25.3 percent), but was shown up by North Dakota (12.9 percent) and Iowa (9.8 percent, the lowest rate of all 39 states reporting for 2019).
But Lt. Brian Reu with Minnesota State Patrol, also Minnesota’s reporting officer for the survey, said the data isn’t conclusive due to the variable number of drivers, districts and bus companies participating and because some drivers may be more likely to make a report than others.
In many states, stop arm violations are some of the few violations that civilians can report, and the need for exact evidence – not just a vehicle’s make and color but the license plate number – can be a factor in how many of those reports result in charges.
Minnesota statute classifies stop arm violations as misdemeanors that carry a fine not less than $500; illegally passing on the passenger side or passing while the arm is out and a child is in the street or on the adjacent sidewalk makes that violation a gross misdemeanor.
Because violations occur in situations with a moving vehicle and a bus driver whose attention is split between passengers and the road, many districts and bus companies in the U.S. have opted for stop arm cameras to nail down plate numbers.
Those cameras are not required in Minnesota, nor are they standard, even for newer buses like the 2020 model Vicky Seymore, a driver for Westonka, is operating this year, but laws for their regulation are on the books in at least 21 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Minnesota School Bus Operators Association (MSBOA), a trade group that represents bus operators statewide, including 4.0 Transportation, which manages the fleet for Westonka, aided state lawmakers in drafting a bill in February that would have funneled $6 million in grants this year to school districts and bus companies for the purpose of installing stop arm cameras on school buses. That bill stalled in committee almost upon introduction.
But camera evidence isn’t enough to charge someone with a stop arm violation, and the school bus driver must still be a witness, said State Patrol’s Reu.
That’s something Officer Steve Sturm of Orono Police said Westonka bus drivers are already good at doing but Sturm, like Seymore, maintained that cameras would help when it comes to issuing a citation. Said Seymore, there’s simply not enough time to take down the vehicle make and plate number before that vehicle is out of sight.
Kevin Borg, superintendent for Westonka, said the district hasn’t pursued in its contracts with 4.0 any stipulation that external cameras be installed on the Westonka buses. Few districts in Minnesota have them, though Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district began adding the cameras to its buses last year, and Bloomington Schools began budgeting for them in 2014.
The cost of adding an external camera to an existing system – like the internal camera network already installed in a handful of Westonka school buses – is about $300 per bus, said Reu, basing his estimate on details from MSBOA’s legislative proposal. To add a camera system in a bus that has no cameras at all could be between $3,000 and $4,000.
Cameras aside, 4.0’s Westonka fleet routinely receives good marks for bus maintenance and driver safety in annual state inspections; the 2019 inspection report from DPS revealed that none of 4.0’s 63 buses for Westonka failed inspection.
But safe buses are only one part of it.
“We all need to do our part,” said Reu. “Drivers need to pay attention and watch for school buses at all times but especially during the morning and afternoon pick-up and drop-off hours.”