Putting The Guidelines Into Practice
While school transportation directors and others involved in route planning need some flexibility in making decisions to evaluate local conditions and individual cases, standardizing the criteria used in decision-making helps create a transparent, explainable process. A systematic process may be easier to explain to school administration, the public and parents and does not rely on subjective "common sense" determinations, which can vary widely depending on the transportation director. However, processes and policies are only useful in improving student safety if they are implemented.
As previously discussed, most states do not have a state-level policy or recommendation related to school bus stop selection, but most districts do — at least to some degree. States vary in the degree of specificity in bus safety policies, including identifying the responsible party (i.e., school districts, individual schools, parents, or drivers) for establishing policies on various safety issues. Some of these variations may inadvertently cause safety gaps or gaps in policies on coverage and eligibility for school bus use. It is critical that local schools and school districts establish policies for school bus routing and the placement of school bus stops.
Some school districts contract pupil transportation services to a private school bus company. Ultimately the decisions of where to place a school bus stop should be made by the local school transportation director or school administration.
Engage Available Resources
School transportation planners should engage local law enforcement officers and transportation authorities that have jurisdiction over roads along, or adjacent to, school bus routes. Law enforcement officers can share data related to crashes and speeding prevalence that may indicate areas to avoid when possible. They will also know the traffic patterns on local roadways, such as the most common types of vehicles, traffic flow irregularities, or other particularly dangerous situations that should be avoided.
Transportation authorities, who may be the Department of Transportation or the local traffic engineer, can provide information about the relative traffic volume and condition of different roads. These agencies not only are responsible for signage that could indicate an upcoming school bus stop and speed limit designation, but they also can provide information on limits to possible engineering treatments and hazard mitigations based on the MUTCD.
If not already utilized, school transportation planners should consider technology-assisted route development. Many school districts use route-planning software or GIS mapping. While these systems often offer benefits like improved efficiency, they can be limited in their role in selection of school bus stops. Care must be taken not to place a higher priority on efficiency than safety. For example, locating a school bus stop on a secondary street may remove the bus from an arterial that offers a more direct route, but the location also allows students to stand on a lower speed street with less traffic. Refer to the Resources section, including "National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures 2005 Revised Edition" for more information.
Plan to Address Parent and Community Concerns
School administration and transportation planners need to plan ahead to address parent and community member concerns. A clearly described appeal process will allow for efficient handling of concerns. At the same time, adopting and documenting the use of a consistent set of criteria for school bus stop selection will make it easier to justify district decisions about stop locations.
While most states and school districts appear to have an appeal process in place for school bus stop relocation, addition, or elimination, the process varies tremendously. Some districts handle appeals with a phone call from parents; others require completion of a form. Some districts give the final authority for a decision to a school principal, while others give that role to the school district transportation director or the school board. Response time also varies and ranges from immediate removal of a stop if a property owner complains to a multi-step process if a parent complains.
Safety is the primary consideration when evaluating a parent's complaint, not personal circumstances or convenience. Nevertheless, people involved in evaluating such situations usually recognize that all of these considerations may go hand-in-hand. Most districts recognize some issues and include specific language in their policies related to selecting school bus stops for children with special needs, homeless children and children who live along routes deemed hazardous, both within and outside of eligible transportation zones.
Several factors can reduce the number of appeals that school transportation planners may face. Some appeals can be avoided when districts have a clearly stated policy and policy rationale, a monitoring process in place, and an open atmosphere where school bus drivers feel comfortable reporting safety issues to supervisors at any time during the school year. A monitoring process could include a hazardous route checklist that drivers use at the beginning of the school year after routes are set but before school starts. Alternately, the transportation director could perform "ride-alongs" at different points during the school year to assess school bus route and stop conditions.
Some districts annually evaluate the student pedestrian population and their safety to and from school; some do not evaluate this population at all. While most school districts consider the safety of the route between home and the school bus stop, the specificity of what is meant by "safe route" between home and the school bus stop varies between school districts and even within topics (e.g., distance, identified hazards, traffic conditions). Again, developing consistent criteria and an assessment process (such as use of a walkability checklist) can help improve safety for students.
Work With the School to Educate Parents
Parents can benefit from a reminder to consider the safety of their child's route between the school bus stop and home and their role. Parents often overestimate their child's readiness to walk alone. Parents need to assess the route from home to the school bus stop so that they can determine if their child needs to be accompanied on the route.
School transportation planners should encourage parents to walk with young students or rotate duties with other parents. Walking to the school bus stop with their child is a chance for parents to assess and teach pedestrian safety skills. See Resources section for pedestrian safety education information to share with parents and students.
Schools that have expanded the zone where students are not eligible to ride the school bus might consider starting a Safe Routes to School program that focuses on making it safer for children to walk and bicycle to school. The Resources section contains more information.
Parents with disabilities are sometimes given special considerations, and their children's school bus stops may be placed at, or very near, their houses since they may not be able to accompany their child to a stop away from the house. Children with special needs who do not receive special transportation may need to be picked up at the curb closest to home. Though these may be desirable practices, and perhaps required under a student's Individualized Education Program (IEP), schools must be prepared to educate other parents about the reasons why some students are picked up at their doors and others are not. Explanations should be general in nature to avoid violation of confidentiality.
Provide Comprehensive Training
Schools and school districts should consider integrating school bus safety training and pedestrian safety training for students since virtually all bus riders are also pedestrians. The route between home and the school bus stop as well as safety at the stop are often considered the parents' responsibility, not the schools', and thus bus-stop-to-home safety may or may not be included in any state-mandated safety trainings. Although school bus drivers' and students' safety before and after a ride is just as important as during a ride, this association is not always reflected in policies, training material, and instructions.
The NHTSA "School Bus Driver In-Service Safety Series" includes a module on "Loading/Unloading" that addresses pedestrian safety and the Resources section details additional pedestrian safety education information to share with parents and students (2001).