Is there a higher priority than protecting our children? Most people would say they value children’s safety… but many of those same people may be putting children at risk.
Channel 4 investigates the problem happening at the worst possible moment. That's because it’s happening at the moment your child is walking onto the school bus or stepping off. Drivers in a hurry or just ignorant to the law, whizzing past that big flashing stop arm that signals everyone that children could be in the roadway..
I rode along on Bus 215 in St. Johns County – driven by Bob Aponte, who says, "People just don’t want to be stuck behind a school bus!"
Video from mounted cameras on Florida buses (pictured, below) in a pilot program show drivers putting children at risk. Channel 4 saw drivers piloting at a pace, and in a way, that seems to say: They don’t care.
That’s how the Florida Stop Arm Safety Coalition feels about it.
Katie Wiles Luebker, Florida Stop Arm Safety Coalition told us, “The modest inconvenience of an extra few seconds spent waiting for a stopped school bus is insignificant compared to the loss of a child's life.”
”It happened to my friend Robert before. By his stop, at Ocean Grande," said Sam Wentworth. a 9th grader at St. Augustine High School. "He was walking on the bus, a car went by, flew right by us."
Channel 4 rode the bus on the high school route to St. Augustine High School for a few days. We watched as almost all the drivers made the adjustment when Aponte’s school bus turned on the red lights – and pushed out the stop sign.
But that doesn’t happen all the time, and in Aponte’s mind – the opposite happens too often.
"I’d say every other day I may get a car that passes thru stop signs, after they’ve been activated," said Aponte.
Counties around the state turned in their numbers, charting how many times a vehicle or vehicles didn’t stop when a school bus stopped to pick up children, or let their passengers off. In that single day – bus drivers reported more than 21-thousand cars passing stopped buses.
St. Johns County reported 117 incidents that particular day. Duval County, 1,600 motorists drove past – when they should have stopped. In Clay County, bus drivers reported 238 motorists passing them on red. Nassau county reported 33 drivers breaking the law. Baker County only had 5 incidents with 45 bus drivers reporting in information. (See the 2012 state-wide county-by-county numbers here.)
That’s a lot of opportunity for children to get hurt. That’s also a hot-button issue for people like Channel 4's Crime and Safety Analyst Ken Jefferson.
”The reason it’s a pet peeve of mine – you’re dealing with the lives of children," he said.
Jefferson is a former Jacksonville Police Officer and recalls the reasons he heard when he pulled motorists over for this offense. He says he'd hear, “didn’t pay attention,” “didn’t see it,” or “didn’t do it.”
”None of those are acceptable, because they weren’t paying attention. Which means these children’s lives are in danger, when they’re not paying attention, when they don’t see it, or they’re speeding,” said Jefferson.
Drivers I spoke with genuinely seemed concerned about every child filling up their seats. While they recognize they can’t control what other motorists do, they focus specifically on what they as drivers can do to protect - all the kids on their buses.
Joe Purvis directs the St. Johns County Schools Transportation department. He has instructors like Aponte teaching new drivers the basics and Purvis says those basics always include teaching drivers to train the children on their buses how to stay safe. Plus, they learn defensive tactics. Aponte says drivers can miss what should be obvious.
”When I grew up, red always meant stop, green meant go – no matter what I was doing,” he said.
Jefferson stood on a busy corner with me, watching traffic, and caught someone breaking the law at that very moment. It ramps up the concern that Jefferson says he saw it too often as an officer.