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Please pay attention to safety around school buses, school officials plead

By Melissa Crowe
Jan. 11, 2012 at 5:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 10, 2012 at 7:11 p.m.

Pam Briones glances toward the back of the bus to check which students will be getting off. Briones said the challenge is to focus on the road, while being aware of what is happening on your bus. "You just learn to look up real quick," Briones said.

Seat belts?

A debate among parents, school districts and the state education agency over seat belts and seat-belt funding is still prevalent more than five years after the law was originally drafted. Victoria ISD special needs buses are equipped with seat belts; the other buses are not.According to the law, seat belts are required in buses purchased by a school district on or after Sept. 1, 2010, and school-chartered buses contracted for use by a school district on or after Sept. 1, 2011.However, a school district is required to be in compliance only to the extent that the state pays or commits to pay the district for those expenses, according to the Texas Transportation Code.Angie Sherman, Victoria ISD transportation director, said outfitting a 71-passenger bus with seat belts can run upwards of $10,000 - an expense she said was not affordable.

Climbing behind the wheel of a nearly 40-foot yellow bus for the first time, Pam Briones was scared.

She was familiar with driving large trucks and pulling trailers after years of helping her husband on their farm. This was a whole different animal.

Throughout her 16 years with the transportation department at Victoria Independent School District, she has become more comfortable with her seat at the wheel. Now, other drivers are the ones who scare her.

"There's a lot of drivers who are very courteous," she said. "But a lot who are busy with texting, phones, job schedules. I don't think it's intentional, maybe they just don't know."

Texas is home to more than 9,000 schools. More than 1 million children and teenagers depend on people like Briones to get them safely to and from school every day. They also depend on other drivers to know the law and drive safely around school buses.

"It's different when you've got somebody else's kids on here," Briones said. "You want to drive like they're your kids. You don't want somebody to be reckless with them."

Roman Hill, Texas Department of Transportation public information officer, said the problem with illegal passing and reckless driving has grown to the point that even parents are speaking up about dangerous drivers.

"It's worth it to slow down and be mindful of the law," Hill said.

She said when school starts after the holidays, there is an uptick in dangerous drivers, that extends to family cars, pickups and semi-trucks.

"I think people just forget," she said. "Everyone's in a hurry. ... We need to take care of one another."

She said that can start as simply as being cautious around school transportation.

According to a news release from Texas Department of Transportation, drivers are legally required to stop for flashing red lights on a school bus, regardless of which direction they are traveling.

Drivers can continue their trip once the bus has moved, the flashing lights stop flashing or the bus driver signals it is OK to pass.

Violations can lead to a $1,000 fine.

While buses are considered the safest way too get children to and from school each day by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to a government group under the U.S. Department of Transportation, the United States averages 139 fatalities a year in school transportation-related crashes, or 8 percent of the nation's total crash fatalities.

Most of the fatalities in these crashes, 72 percent, were occupants of other vehicles involved, according to a 2009 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Angie Sherman, Victoria school district transportation director, said her drivers experience problems with dangerous and illegal passing on nearly every route, even with special needs buses.

"They're supposed to stop," she said. "It's very frustrating because you can't do anything about it."

The problem has steadily gotten worse and has grown nationwide, she said.

Although there have not been any crashes in Victoria's school district, Sherman said there have been close calls.

"Drivers have total disregard," Sherman said. "Be aware: Flashing red lights mean stop. It's to keep these kids safe."

At her Briones stop on a route for Shields Elementary School, Briones steers the bus near the curb on Main Street, a five-lane road with no median. Red lights and a stop sign activate.

She opens the door and two boys exit.

With a tinge of frustration, Briones watches as a pickup and Suburban pass in the inside lane, and oncoming traffic rushes past.

"They're supposed to stop."

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