Originally created 02/03/01

Education leaders talk bus safety



It's become a crusade of sorts for Richmond County School Board member Helen Minchew.

She does not want what happened in Columbia County last month - a school bus running over and killing a child - to happen in Richmond County.

"With the little kids, you just can't tell them one time," Mrs. Minchew said. "School buses are portrayed to young children as fun, cute, smiling, happy friends, when really they are powerful, heavy, engines that can hurt them - that can kill them."

So she has talked with Charles Larke, Richmond County's superintendent of schools. She has talked with Mike Shinn, the Education Department's transportation director. She has talked with bus drivers. She has talked with other parents.

And she will continue to talk until something is done to improve bus safety for Richmond County schoolchildren.

"I want us to begin pursuing it," Mrs. Minchew said. "You can't jump in and do something fast. We just need to see what we can do and what we can do a little better."

So in the few weeks between the tragedy in Martinez and now, a half-dozen bus safety ideas have been proposed by Mrs. Minchew and others, including Mr. Shinn and Dr. Larke.

Those ideas include refresher courses for bus drivers, new mirrors for older school buses, bus monitors, motion sensors that emit a shrill noise when children or adults are too close to the front or rear of the bus, and closed circuit cameras that allow the driver to view blind spots around the bus.

"We're looking at everything, anything we can do to make our schools safer," Dr. Larke said.

He said the refresher courses for drivers can easily be incorporated into the school system, as can the round "fish eye" mirrors for older buses and a mandate that all new buses purchased by the school department will be of the flat face variety, the model with the engine underneath the driver instead of in front of the driver.

Bus monitors will be more costly and more difficult to provide, Dr. Larke and other school officials admit. Hiring 130 people to ride every school bus in Richmond County would cost $1.8 million.

"We can't afford that," Dr. Larke said at a recent school board meeting.

Dr. Larke said he plans on contacting companies that provide the noise sensors and closed-circuit video monitors, but he and other school officials are not sure if they can afford the initial investment.

Adding these digital closed-circuit video monitors, currently in production and due to hit the marketplace in July, could cost more than $2,000 per bus.

"I know it's a little bit of money," said Ronnie Reddy, a bus driver in Richmond County for the past 27 years. "But how much is a child's life worth?"

Mr. Reddy, who tied a white and pink ribbon to his bus after the tragedy in Columbia County, said drivers of cars need to be more cautious, too.

He said he's had cars pass him on the right as he was letting pupils off the bus. "They must not know it's a $400 fine and a year's probation," Mr. Reddy said.

Mrs. Minchew said she and Mr. Shinn have talked about using one of the older, out of service, buses as a "model" for schoolchildren.

Under her plan, the bus would visit each elementary and middle school so each class could spend an hour learning about bus safety and the proper way to cross in front of the bus.

Mr. Reddy said he thinks reminding pupils and bus drivers alike about school bus safety is a good thing.

"It's good for everybody," he said. "It brings back some of your recall: what you're supposed to do and how you do it."

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.