BARRHEAD - A Barrhead-area parent believes Pembina Hills School Division (PHSD) needs to do more to combat school bus flybys, including equipping all their school buses with stop sign control arms and cameras.
Flybys is the term given to drivers who "fly by" school buses stopped on a roadway with their red lights flashing, a requirement under Alberta's Traffic Safety Act.
The penalty for violating the law is $549 and six demerit points.
Hielke Vandermeulen dropped by the Barrhead Leader's office last week to tell us his concern about vehicles failing to stop for school buses that have their lights flashing when his son, who is in Grade 1, was being dropped off at his stop after school. The Vandermeulen's stop is about six miles south of Barrhead on Highway 33.
"The bus put on its amber warning lights to let people know it was about to stop. One vehicle passed, then the (school bus lights) changed to red to let my son off the bus," he said. "Two more vehicles passed the stopped school bus with all of the emergency warning lights on indicating that they had to stop."
Unfortunately, Vandermeulen said this is far from the first time that vehicles have failed to stop for a school bus that has stopped to pick up or drop off his son.
"It has to be at least the fourth or fifth time, but most of the time, it has been in the morning," he said.
The frequency of the incidents prompted him approach the school division to ask that all PHSD buses have stop signs installed, along with additional flashing lights, on the control arms that extend from the vehicle when loading or unloading students. Failing that, he asked that one of the school buses with the control arm that jets out six feet from the left side of the bus be assigned to his son's route.
Vandermeulen said he has also contacted Alberta Transportation in hopes a sign can be installed at his son's stop, alerting drivers it is an official school bus stop. He also noted he has contacted Barrhead-Athabasca-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken's office about the issue and so far, has not received a response.
“My goal is to raise awareness of the seriousness of this matter to Mr. van Dijken and the need to change the laws for a stricter punishment or fines for those who fail to stop for the busses," he said.
Currently, the school division has a limited number of buses with control arms, which it uses on routes where flybys are particularly problematic.
Vandermeulen said the school division said they would consider transferring one of the buses with the control arms to their route, adding the division told him it would be considered, and noted installing the units on every bus would be cost-prohibitive.
"These arms need to be installed on every school bus," Vandermeulen said. "It doesn't matter what the cost is. The safety of students should come first."
Acting transportation director David Sharpe agreed that flybys are an ongoing issue.
"It seems to be cyclical with the numbers reported to us from our school bus drivers and parents going up and down," he said, noting that currently, he would not consider it one of the higher times but that flybys are still happening throughout the division.
Sharpe added PHSD continues to work with its drivers and law enforcement officials to combat the problem but added outside of keeping track of the incidents and reporting them to the RCMP and the Alberta Sheriffs promptly, what they can do is somewhat limited.
"We do have extended arms with stop signs on a few of our buses as part of a trial program for the school year," he said, adding they have had some success with the units. "They have not eliminated flybys on the routes the buses with the control arms are on, but the frequency of which they happen have been reduced."
At the end of the school year, Sharpe said the division will re-evaluate the program to see if they will install the extended control stop sign arms on more school buses. However, he noted it is doubtful the school division would be able to install the units on every route or bus.
Sharpe noted the units cost about $5,000 and PHSD presently has 68 school bus routes and a fleet of upwards of 80 buses, not all of which are owned and operated by the division.
He added the routes or areas that report the most flybys are those on major highways, such as Highway 18 heading west out of Barrhead as well as Highway 18 going north to Highway 33 towards Swan Hills.
For the routes in the Westlock area, the most troublesome flyby areas again tend to be along the highways.
Sharpe reiterated that the school division and bus drivers do report the incidents to the police.
"But unfortunately, our drivers are not always able to get a licence plate number, and that is a limiting factor for us," he said.
Sharpe added that in recent years, some of the school buses have had external cameras installed to increase the chances of reporting flyby perpetrators, though their ability is often limited due to weather, debris or lighting conditions, "or the vehicle is moving too fast, and the licence plate is just a blur".
In the meantime, Sharpe said the best way people can help is by reminding their fellow drivers to obey the law and stop when school bus lights are flashing, and to report any violations they see to PHSD’s transportation office at 780-674-8510, along with the RCMP.
It is also worth mentioning that as a precautionary measure, every school year, the division hosts a series of school bus safety seminars at every school for every grade level. Before the start of the school year, the division also hosts a safety presentation for first-time bus riders.
Barrhead RCMP Sgt. Bob Dodds agreed with Vandermeulen and Sharpe that fly-bys are very dangerous.
"Regrettably, we don't have enough resources to follow every school bus or watch every stop," he said. "We will do what we can, but public education is the key."
Dodds added flybys are also incidents that police need to catch while in progress, and in their absence, they need a licence plate number, which together with a witness statement, allows police to ticket the offender.