By Patti Dozier
THOMASVILLE — The large red-and-white signs with blinking red lights that extend from school buses when the large, yellow vehicles stop are not decorations. Neither are the flashing amber and red lights that warn of an impending stop and relay that a bus has stopped.
The biggest school bus safety factor is motorists going around school buses when the stop arm is out, said Robert Young, Thomas County Schools transportation coordinator and bus supervisor.
Since October 2013, Thomasville Post 12 Georgia State Patrol has investigated seven school bus accidents in the agency’s four-county coverage area. Of those, six involved Thomas County buses.
Of the seven accidents, bus drivers were at fault in three.
“In the six Thomas County school bus accidents, drivers were at fault in two,” said Dr. Dusty Kornegay, Thomas County Schools superintendent.
One involved a bus following too closely. The vehicle in front of the bus stopped suddenly. In the other, a bus pulled out in front of a vehicle in a situation where visibility was limited.
Said Peeples, “We want motorists to be aware when flashing lights come on, the bus is preparing to make a stop. Flashing amber lights come on at least 200 feet before a bus stops. Flashing red lights come on when the bus stops.”
If a Thomas County bus driver is cited in an accident, the driver is suspended for three days without pay and sent back to a training program.
On multi-lane highways where there is no grass median, such as on U.S. 319 North, traffic traveling in both directions must stop when a school bus stops.
When there is a grass median, such as on U.S. 319 South and U.S. 19, traffic in all lanes on the side on which the bus is traveling must stop.
“The majority of the time, the ones (accidents) we see the school bus drivers are not at fault,” said Sgt. First Class Tommy Peeples, Post 12 commander.
When buses are running routes, the vehicles travel at a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour, Peeples said, adding that buses travel 55 mph if they are not stopping.
The primary concern, the commander said, is children being injured getting on and off buses.
Passing a stopped school bus results in six points on the offender’s drivers license — more points than for any other traffic offense.
Thomas County has eight bus routes in Thomasville. Young said most reports of vehicles going around stopped buses are in the city, particularly on Martin Luther King Drive.
“Today’s school buses are built with safety in mind. They are tougher, cleaner and more diligently maintained than ever before. School bus drivers receive extensive training, and they undergo regular drug and alcohol testing to provide a safe ride for our children,” Kornegay said.
Even though there is an occasional bus accident, all available data suggest that school buses are by far the safest way for students to get to and from school, the superintendent said.
“The school bus is safer than the student driving himself, safer than riding with a parent and even safer than walking to school. Only 1 percent of fatalities that occur among children on their way to or from school each year occur on a school bus,” Kornegay added.
While more than 30,000 people are killed in traffic crashes every year, six school-age children die as passengers in school buses annually, he said.
“We have been very fortunate not to have any serious injuries among our students or drivers due to school bus accidents in recent years. We attribute this to the professionalism of our drivers, the courtesy that other drivers pay to our buses, the sturdy construction of our buses and the safety equipment that helps to minimize the impact on students when accidents occur,” Kornegay said.
Senior reporter Patti Dozier can be reached at (229) 226-2400, ext. 1820.