Bus driver Wanda Kimber held her palm open, a signal to five Pleasant Union Elementary School fifth-graders to stay where they were at a makeshift bus stop outside the North Raleigh school. Kimber then gave the students a thumbs-up signal and pointed for them to cross in front of the bus.
Every school system in North Carolina must implement new hand signals by January in an effort to improve bus safety. Wake will begin Monday for the 80,000 students who ride the bus daily.
On Wednesday, Kimber and Pleasant Union students demonstrated how the new signals work.
Hand signals will give bus drivers more control and give students a process to follow to safely cross the street, according to a presentation in July from the State Board of Education, which approved the policy.
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In Wake, the hand signals will be used in conjunction with a multi-switch system installed in all buses last summer. Schools received $400,000 from the state Department of Public Instruction for the project.
The system first activates the flashing lights, then the stop-arm and finally the crossing gate in front of the bus. Only then should students board the bus.
Now when buses stop, drivers in Wake will also open their palms to signal to students to stay put. At that time, drivers will activate the bus’s flashing lights.
After drivers determine traffic has stopped, they will deploy the bus’s stop-arm. At the same time, they will give students a thumbs-up.
Finally, the drivers will point in the direction they want students to walk to board the bus. Students are expected to look both ways before crossing the street.
The hand signals will require bus riders to pay attention, which will help bus drivers, Kimber said. Middle and high school students tend to cross the street without watching for traffic or waiting for the bus to stop, she said.
School officials said the multi-switch process also provides an extra chance for bus drivers to ensure motorists are obeying the stop-arm law and not illegally passing stopped buses.
“Our biggest concern is that motorists see the flashing lights and know when to stop,” said Kimber, 54, who has been driving a school bus for 17 years.
Kimber, who drives in northern Wake County, said she often sees cars pass her bus illegally or continue to move forward when they should be stopped.
“It’s especially bad in subdivisions, where you think it wouldn’t be,” she said, adding that parents often drive away from bus stops before their child is safely on the bus.
Frankie Nehilla, a fifth-grader at Pleasant Union Elementary, rides the bus almost every day. He said he doesn’t see cars pass his bus and he’s never felt unsafe while boarding. Even so, the new rules provide an extra measure of safety.
Since 1999, 13 students have been killed in North Carolina by passing motorists while trying to get on or off the school bus. This year, five students across the state have been seriously injured by vehicles while trying to cross the street to or from a bus.
“The parents really have got to enforce to their children to pay attention,” Kimber said.