By Alan Sorensen
The Havre Public Schools bus drivers are busy this month carrying the message of National Bus Safety Awareness Week, Oct. 18-23 Ride the Bus: Its the Safest Way to School.
Topping off the week is an open house at the bus garage from 7 to 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 25.
Were trying to get more ridership, Transportation Director Ginger Zanto said. Its 60 times safer than a private motorist.
Zantos claim is backed up by statistics provided by the National Highway Safety Administration. An average of 600 children died in automobile accidents during school hours each year between 1987 and 1997.
NHSA chief Ricardo Martinez, quoted in the Sept. 2 edition of USAToday, said that the 60 to 1 odds should be a wake-up call for parents and make them think twice before driving their children to school or allowing teen-agers to drive to school unnecessarily.
School buses have been a necessity for districts that have traditionally covered the vast open stretches of Montana countryside.
Montanas school buses cover as many or more miles than almost every other state. Kalispell and Missoula systems shared top honors in the United States for years, with one department traveling the most miles each day and the other having the most buses on the road each day.
Today in Montana, there are 164,627 public school students in kindergarten through 12 grade. About 34 percent of those students, 55,747 kids, travel to and from school on the 2,136 public school buses operating in the state.
Only two percent of the buses on the roads in Montana today are pre-1977 models. The 98 percent of the school buses manufactured after April 1, 1977, have improved safety features. They have high-back, closely spaced and well-padded seats that offer superior crash protection to children.
Known as compartmentalization, this seating concept effectively packages children like eggs and negates the need for lap belts. Buses manufactured after 1992 have even more safety equipment, including stop signal arms and additional mirrors.
One student dies on average every year in Montana while riding in a passenger vehicle during normal school hours.
The pupil transportation budget for public school buses in Montana during the 1996-97 school year was $38,989,665. That averaged out to an annual per enrolled student cost of $236.83.
A regular bus department project each fall involves training students in bus safety and evacuation procedures. Havre transportation department personnel have been extremely busy recently taking those messages to area schools.
Between Oct. 11 and 18, bus-safety classes were taught to students at Havre Middle School. On Oct. 19, students at Lincoln-McKinley and Sunnyside got the good word on buses, and Highland Park students will get their bus lessons on Oct. 25.
The bus-safety classes will return to Lincoln-McKinley and Sunnyside again on Oct. 27, and be held at Devlin on Nov. 2.
The Havre Public Schools Parent Activity Bus Connection is a computerized system installed a few years ago. The systems intention is to enable parents to keep track of activities buses as they head for home.
Parents call the Parent Activity Bus Connection number, 265-8239, and are told the latest location of their students bus and the bus estimated time of arrival back in Havre.
Bus driver call in their locations and then keep them updated as often as possible during the trip. The primary purpose of the system is to give parents the best idea of when the bus will be arriving home. The parents can then be on hand to pick up their children without too long a wait.
The system is used for all out-of-town activities trips, ranging from athletic trips to field trips to music, drama, and speech and debate trips.
Havre Public Schools bus drivers have a total of 170 years of accident-free driving among them.
There would have been several more years of accident-free driving had it not been for minor scrapes incurred by two buses at the bus garage and a deer that jumped in front of a third bus. No one was injured in those three mishaps.
Those bus drivers who were awarded pins marking their years of accident-free driving were: Denice Hellie, Sandy Lipp, Murdo MacKay and Debra Newbauer, one year; Robin Myers and Jim Bedwell, three years; Logan LaSalle, four years, Mike Campbell, six years; Tim Hauge, seven years; Ken Hanson, eight years; Sheila Szudera, nine years; Valerie Wolf, 10 years; Karen Scheuerman, 12 years; Susie Bessette and Errol Shulund, 15 years; Gerry Dolven and Russ Earl, 18 years; JoAnn Gilbert and Jim Galbavy, 19 years.
State law is very specific when it comes to what drivers can and cant do when approaching any school buses, public or private, large or small.
Motorists must stop more than 10 feet from school buses whose red signal lights are flashing and its stop-sign arm is extended. That rule applies to motorists approaching buses from any direction, whether in towns or on country roads or on state or federal highways.
Motorists are forbidden from proceeding again until all children have entered the school bus or alighted and reached the side of the highway or street and until the school bus ceases operation of its visual flashing red signal.
Motorists also must begin slowing and be prepared to stop when approaching a school bus whose amber warning lights are flashing.
Montana code also dictates the responsibility of bus drivers who are preparing to or are in the process of loading or unloading students.
The bus amber lights must be actuated 150 feet in cities and approximately 500 feet in other areas before the bus is stopped to take on or let off students. The bus driver must activate the bus red lights when the school bus is stopped to load or unload children.
The only exceptions to these laws are:
If the district adopts a policy prohibiting the operation of amber or red lights at the school site when children do not cross the street;
When the school bus is stopped in a loading/unloading zone that is separate from the highway or street. This loading/unloading zone must be completely off the road in a parking lot setting.
Motorists on a street or highway with separate, physically-divided roadways do not have to stop when meeting or approaching a school bus that is on the adjacent roadway.
Havre school bus drivers are instructed to turn in motorists who violate the no-passing signals. Police are quick to issue tickets and the fines levied in city court are generally $100 or more.
Motorists are reminded to approach school buses and school zones with caution because children often dart among vehicles and into streets. As winter sets in, the shorter days and darker morning and afternoon hours make it even more difficult to see children as they move to and from their schools.