Thursday, December 9, 2004
Like his colleagues in the Steamboat Springs School District's transportation department, Bud Ritzel can't help but develop a fondness for the kids he takes to and from school day after day and year after year.
And like his fellow bus drivers, Ritzel is increasingly concerned that a tragedy is just around the corner.
District bus drivers report they're seeing an alarming number of motorists who fail to obey the flashing red stop signs that swing out from the sides of school buses when they pick up and drop off students along their daily routes.
"It's a problem, a dangerous problem," Ritzel said Thursday as he and other drivers prepared to begin their afternoon shifts. "It's probably the most dangerous thing that can happen when we're driving.
"All you have to have is someone in a vehicle whose mind is elsewhere and a kid whose mind is elsewhere for a real bad situation to happen."
State law requires motorists traveling in both directions to stop when a school bus's flashing stop sign is engaged. If a median is present, motorists on the opposite side of the road from the school bus may continue driving.
The law's purpose is simple, district transportation director Ed Dingledine said.
"The bottom line is the safety of our kids," he said, adding that children often need to cross the road after unloading from buses.
The stop signs aren't used at all bus stops, only those where the area needs to be controlled for safety, Dingledine said.
In an effort to address the problem, bus drivers have been reporting the license plate numbers and descriptions of motorists who fail to stop for a flashing sign. The information is passed on to the Steamboat Springs Police Department or the Routt County Sheriff's Office.
With an accurate license plate number and driver description, law enforcement officers can issue tickets to motorists reported to them by bus drivers and other witnesses, Steamboat Springs Police Capt. Joel Rae said.
The ticket carries a $150 fine and six points added to the violator's driving record, Rae said.
Some bus drivers even have enlisted the help of their student riders to identify culprits, providing the children with complimentary movie tickets for jotting down or remembering the correct license plate numbers of motorists who fail to stop for buses. But even that effort hasn't helped curtail the offenses.
"For every person we get a license number and description for, there are four or five who get away," Ritzel said.
Dingledine said the offenders are a combination of drivers unfamiliar with the law, drivers who are in a hurry and don't want to stop behind or across from a bus, and drivers who are preoccupied with cell phones or other things and don't realize what they've done.
Regardless of the reasons, Dingledine and the district's bus drivers said they want to educate motorists in order to prevent a tragedy.
"The ticket shouldn't be the threat," bus driver Tara Shaffer said. "(The threat) should be the child's life."