A week after a 7-year-old child was killed by a passing SUV at a bus stop on Palm Coast’s Whippoorwill Drive, the school board’s Andy Dance and Palm Coast City Council member Jason DeLorenzo started what soon became a formal joint committee between the two governments to explore improvements of student safety at bus stops and on roadways. The committee has now produced the first set of proposals, initially focusing on the busier bus stops, that will begin to redefine where and how students should wait for their buses. Whether students will actually follow the new directions is not at all certain.
Initially, three bus stops will be used to pilot what may then spread to 18 stops, and beyond that, to some more of the 600 bus stops in the county. But not all bus stops will be redesigned. The project is limited by cost and by the busy-ness, or lack of it, at various bus stops. The location of many bus stops changes from year to year, too. “So it wouldn’t make sense to spend $1,200 for a bus stop that’s going to be there for a year, next year it gets moved two blocks away and you’ve wasted the money and resources to do that,” said Mike Judd, the school district’s former facilities director–he retired two years ago–who has reappeared as a paid consultant for the bus safety project and other assignments.
The changes will be modest, but will consist of the installation of a $1,200 “pad” at chosen bus stops that would be the designated areas where students will be asked to wait for their bus. “The idea is that students would be able to get off of the roadway and at least to an area where they wouldn’t be blocking traffic,” Judd said. He presented the committee’s findings to the school board Tuesday.
The change will be accompanied by some signage to coax students to the right spot and create some crossing zones while making sure that parents don’t mistake the pads for parking spots. “It’s always kind of a delicate balancing act between what’s enough signage to get people’s attention and too much signage that nobody’s going to pay attention to,” Judd said.
The three bus stops’ locations are still being evaluated, but they’re in Palm Coast. For now, Palm Coast is paying for the pad installations and the signs. The plan is to expand the redesign with money from the River to Sea Transportation Planning organization, which may have grants for the purpose.
The committee developed the plan by analyzing the type of roads the bus stops are located on, the ridership at each bus stop, the age of the students at those stops, and by taking into account input from bus drivers. The road and statistical surveys were facilitated by the district’s and city’s resources, which enabled map overlays of school data pointing out the bus stops with city data showing road characteristics. The survey of bus drivers was less successful: only a “handful” responded, from 80 drivers queried, Judd said.
“Once that pilot program is put in place then it gives us an opportunity to look and see if people are actually using them,” Judd said. “If they’re not using them maybe the answer is we need more education, we need more enforcement, or maybe it’s just not working and we need to look at another option.”
The death of 7-year-old Kemora Christian took place as she and other students were waiting for an elementary school bus, but according to the Florida Highway Patrol, and information relayed at the moment of the collision to then911 dispatch center, the child had darted in front of the car for reasons unknown—a possibly freak accident in the full sense of the term that may not be entirely preventable even in the best0-marked bus stops.
Four additional collisions between vehicles and middle school students on bicycles have taken place this year, none at bus stops, and all involving students who were following the rules of the road, while drivers were not. In other words, the problem in each of those cases was not the students, but adult distraction, as if generally the case with such crashes. Sometimes it’s not even distraction but a lack of awareness: Tuesday morning at Saturn Elementary School in Brevard County, a 42-year-old woman at the wheel of her car ran over the leg of the 9-year-old child she had just dropped off, along with another child, when the 9 year old, unbeknownst to the driver, had fallen, and the other child had closed the car door and bent down to help the fallen child.
That’s where the committee hopes education will play a larger role.
To that end, a team of Flagler Palm Coast High School’s Community Problem Solvers have put together an educational presentation called “Street Talk” that they have begun showing at elementary schools, as they did all day Tuesday at Wadsworth Elementary. Students in first through sixth grade got to see it.
“The students were very engaged, they were paying attention, they answered questions, they seemed to grasp, at least the younger ones, the first graders, seemed to grasp the material,” Dance, the school board member who’s closely involved with the problem solvers, said. “So to me it seemed like a very effective presentation. The kids did a good job of throwing in some humor and made sure the students were paying attention.”
On Feb. 2, the school board approved a resolution designating Aug. 15-19 as Pedestrian and Cyclist Safety Week to recognize that walking and biking to school is healthy, but also to take note of “an increase in the number of accidents involving bicycles and/or pedestrians over the past year,” and raise awareness of various safety issues concerning children on roads. The resolution singles out the problem solvers’ “Street Talk” as an example of community awareness “essential to the success of these initiatives.”
“We didn’t really talk about bus stops at this stage,” Dance said. “Once these pads are in place, we’ll have a couple of different presentations on proper etiquette at the bus stops, with and without these pads. One of the challenges we have is the larger bus stops, you have more students exiting, so you have a logjam on the road right after the bus lets the students off, so any vehicles coming back and forth, students tend not to move to the side.”
Dance has also been working with Kristy Gavin, the school board attorney, to detect gaps in policy “so there’s a perpetual process in place for educations safety,” he said. District policy reflects the state mandate to teach bus safety—how to get on and off buses, how to be safe aboard buses, and so on. “But they have neglected to address the other aspects of getting to and from school,” Dance said, “which is walking and bicycling, so that’s a gap we’re working [on], whether it’s a new policy where we work with the Safe Routes to School foundation, that’s a national foundation that promotes safe routes to school, walking, bicycling. They have grants. In the future we’ll look at a policy that incorporates intergovernmental relationships with the county, the cities, the school board, the sheriff’s office, and perpetuates student safety on an annual basis.”