On Dec. 10, near Plainfield, Wis., a six-year-old girl was killed and her 4-year-old sister injured while the two were waiting to board their school bus. Even though the bus had its flashing red lights on, a driver attempted to pass on the right side and struck the girls.
A similar tragedy almost happened here, in the fall of 2018. A Hayward High School student wearing headphones was about to step off a stopped bus with flashing red lights on Highway B. The bus driver noticed a vehicle coming up on the right side shoulder and grabbed the student’s hoodie, thus preventing a potential tragedy.
On Thursday, Feb. 6, Paul Wessel, manager for Hurricane Busing, told the members of the Sawyer County Public Safety Committee that his drivers on 27 routes daily report drivers who pass stopped buses with red stop signs extended and red flashing lights while students are getting on and off.
Others who had been invited to the meeting supported Wessel and added that more needed to be done to raise awareness on school bus safety.
Supervisor James Schlender, chair of the committee, had asked concerned citizens to attend the meeting to address what is becoming a growing public safety issue — drivers ignoring the red flashing lights and extended stop sign, and driving around stopped school buses.
Schlender said he wanted the county to be proactive and not wait until a student is killed to figure out how to address the issue.
“It’s definitely been an issue,” said Jessica Hutchison, Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe (LCO) K-12 school director.
Hutchinson reported just months before that there had been an incident in front of her school of a driver passing a stopped bus for handicapped students.
Hutchinson reported for Gilbert Kingfisher, transportation director for LCO School, that it appears the public is not aware that the yellow lights a bus signals before the red lights mean to slow up and prepare to stop, not speed up and pass the bus.
State law requires a vehicle to stop 20 feet behind a bus showing flashing red lights.
“I think there is just a real lack of awareness by the public about what the law is, and public education is important,” she said.
“Daily, people are driving through a red light,” said Wessel, but said the issue is not just local, and noted that in May 2019 on a specific day in 39 states, bus drivers collectively reported 138,000 incidents of those illegally driving around a stopped school bus.
“It’s a very big problem,” said Wessel. “Public awareness, a little more, might be a step. Any help we get would be great.”
As much as possible, Wessel said, his buses pick up students where they don’t have to cross a street. He then noted the 2018 Plainfield incident and reported that more kids are killed by a driver attempting to pass a stopped bus on the right shoulder side than in the opposite lane.
Wessel said Hurricane buses do not have cameras, because the minimum price is $2,000.
The bus drivers in attendance said they attempt to record a license plate and a passing vehicle to report a violation to police, but their first priority is the safety of the students; they often are too focused on the students to record the complaint information.
Law enforcement agents in attendance said information on a complaint, by state law, has to be followed up within 48 hours or it cannot be processed. They encouraged bus drivers to focus on the license plate number and description of the vehicle and not so much on the description of the driver.
Schlender said the county has the option to explore making the violation a county infraction; that might allow more time to follow-up on a complaint.
Sheriff Doug Mrotek said the owner of the vehicle has some responsibility, even if the owner wasn’t the driver.
Barb Biller, director of LCO Head Start and Early Head Start, said her clients are age 3-5 and are buckled in; thus it takes longer for them to unbuckle and buckle, and some drivers are impatient when the Head Start buses take longer at a stop.
Biller said one car driver was so impatient with her bus driver that he asked the bus driver to pull over so the car driver could pass.
Supervisor Ron Buckholtz, who also drives a Hayward Head Start bus, said it is required by law for those very young passengers to be buckled, and that requirement leads to more time spent in the bus being stopped.
Schlender said it is important for the public to understand why it takes longer for the Head Start buses.
Sheriff Mrotek said distracted drivers are a major safety issue and noted that school buses are on the road during high traffic periods.
Since 2017, Chief Deputy Joe Sajdera said there had only been 19 complaints filed by bus drivers, leading to just three citations.
Retired Sawyer County Chief Deputy Craig Faulstich encouraged pursuing grants to buy cameras for the buses and also for compiling a list of “hot spots” where violations are known to occur.
Hayward Chief of Police Joel Clapero said the issue was huge and said his department was always willing to assign officers to hot spots.
Animal Control Officer Sherrie Shelton said she had driven a school bus for 30 years and said many of the violations she had witnessed were senior citizens who appeared not to be paying attention.
David Innerebner, transportation director for LCO Head Start, noted some of his worst routes for violations were on Dakota and Wisconsin avenues in the city.
“There just needs to be some kind of awareness campaign that would work with law enforcement and bus companies,” said Innerebner.
On a positive note, Wessel said, the change from four lanes to two on Highway 27 south of the Namekagon Bridge had resulted in fewer violations on that section.
Schlender asked each of the agencies to gather data on the number of violations and said the discussion is just the first to address this public safety issue.