Distracted Driving Enforcement Targeting School Bus Stops
UPDATE (April 2, 2019): This report was updated at 12:15 pm to correct the name of the Newtown school superintendent.
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In Newtown, Monroe, and Bethel — which share the State Routes 25 and 302 corridor — April will not only provide an opportunity for police agencies in those communities to heighten Distracted Driving Awareness Month enforcement, it will also be an opportunity for continued scientific data gathering about distracted driving and enforcement around school bus stops.
Newtown Police Patrol Supervisor Sergeant Jeff Silver told The Newtown Bee that his department has received funding to cover overtime for officers engaged in distracted driving monitoring and enforcement programs throughout April. While Newtown will also play a role in targeted enforcement around and near school bus stops, Sgt Silver said local officers are expected to be hyper vigilant to evidence of distracted driving around the clock.
“This chronic problem leads to crashes, and yet is 100 percent preventable simply by making the choice to focus on driving,” Sgt Silver said. “Leave your phone alone.”
Leading up to and through Distracted Driving Awareness Month, Newtown resident and traffic safety scientist Neil Chaudhary, PhD, and his Monroe-based Preusser Research Group Inc (PRG) enlisted data gatherers who have already been monitoring traffic around school bus stops along the Routes 25 and 302 corridor. Additional data will be collected during and then after the April Distracted Driving Awareness Month campaign.
He said support for the pilot PRG study focusing on the increased hazard of distracted driving around school bus stops came from local school superintendents after a string of deaths and injuries of students hit by vehicles at school bus stops in Connecticut and across the nation. The PRG’s work is also being supported by State Senator Tony Hwang, Dr Chaudhary said.
Last fall, five separate early-morning accidents in Indiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Florida resulted in five student fatalities and left six other children hospitalized, two of them with serious injuries, Dr Chaudhary said. And much closer to home, a 10-year-old child was also struck and injured at a bus stop in Manchester last September, and a seven-year-old child was struck by a hit and run driver and injured while crossing a street to board a school bus last June in Waterbury.
As smartphone use, digital dashboard displays, and other mobile technology have proliferated, so have the number of automobile crashes involving distracted drivers, Dr Chaudhary commented. The most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows in 2016 — the most recent data year — 3,450 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted driving.
Crashes Hit Home
In Connecticut that same year, distracted drivers caused 12 fatalities and more than 3,200 injuries, according to the UConn Crash Data Repository. That agency provides crash information collected by state and local police.
A separate study analyzed by Dr Chaudhary in January 2018, produced by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, concluded drivers who text or surf the internet on smartphones are two to eight times more likely to be involved in a crash, and those who simply talk and drive increase their risk up to four times.
That prompted him to dig a bit deeper — disturbingly, discovering the last three years of UConn crash data for Newtown determined more than half fell into two categories indicating distracted driving likely contributed to or caused them.
The mounting evidence and increasing incidents of injuries and deaths to school students prompted local superintendents to support Dr Chaudhary’s current PRG study as well as targeted police enforcement around bus routes.
Newtown Superintendent Dr Lorrie Rodrigue said the local district has “enthusiastically partnered with the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT), neighboring schools, and our local law enforcement in working toward improving school bus stop safety.”
“The sobering news regarding tragedies with students at bus stops throughout the United States has raised concerns from parents and community members in many school districts,” Dr Rodrigue said. “Working collaboratively with the DOT and police departments in collecting and analyzing data around distracted driving can help lead to improvements regarding our students’ safety at bus stops. Our work is not only timely but critically important in the potential development of future safeguards for our students.”
Bethel colleague Dr Christine Carver said her district is similarly “thrilled to work with the Department of Transportation and local law enforcement to become a proactive force in reducing incidents of distracted driving.
“While we are aiming to reduce incidents of distracted driving in general, we are specifically interested in reducing those circumstances related to bus accidents, our student drivers, and making sure our bus stops are safe,” Dr Carver added.
Monroe Superintendent Dr Jack Zamary believes the collaborative effort between local police and the PRG researchers will provide important information about how best to safeguard students at bus stops.
“Given the recent tragedies with bus stops across the nation,” Dr Zamary said, “this work is of extreme importance and very timely.”
The NHTSA defines distracted driving as any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone; eating and drinking; talking to people in your vehicle; fiddling with the stereo, entertainment, or navigation system — anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.
The agency notes, however, that texting is the most alarming distraction. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for five seconds, so at 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.
Furthermore, the NHTSA says during daylight hours when more school age children are active — including boarding or departing from school buses — approximately 481,000 drivers are using cell phones while driving. That creates enormous potential for deaths and injuries.
Teen Drivers Responsible
Alarmingly, teen drivers represent the largest age group reported as distracted at the time of fatal crashes, the agency says.
In 2016, NHTSA says one in ten fatalities involving drivers and/or passengers between the ages of 15 and 19 resulted from distraction-affected crashes. And adding school bus stops to the distracted driving mix is something that keeps Newtown’s Dr Chaudhary up nights.
“Newtown’s most precious cargo is on our school buses,” he told The Newtown Bee. “It’s sadly ironic that while school buses are one of the safest vehicles on the road today, we’re seeing these horrible crashes with deaths and injuries as kids are getting on and off them. And this rash of deaths last fall was a real eye-opener.”
In his line of work, Dr Chaudhary often has access to myriad statistics about traffic hazards as they are being compiled or immediately upon their release.
“At Preusser Research Group, we’re responsible for doing distracted driving research,” he said, having supplied data to several federal traffic agencies and numerous state motor vehicle and traffic agencies, including the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles (DVM) and Department of Transportation (DOT).
“What keeps me up nights is — despite more laws and enforcement, I’m seeing distracted driving deaths becoming more prevalent,” Dr Chadhary said, adding, “in some cases, they are actually getting worse.”
That escalation in distracted driving fatalities prompted Dr Chadhary to contact the state DOT about Distracted Driving Awareness Month enforcement.
“I asked about an interest in doing some research around school bus stops, and they were all over it,” Dr Chaudhary said, adding that if this localized pilot program yields the kind of results the DOT needs, it could expand to include more than a dozen other towns in Connecticut.
“There are 19 towns across the state that share contiguous roadway corridors,” he said. “So the DOT, using federal grant funds, have set up this pilot study working with the school districts and police agencies in Newtown, Monroe, and Bethel. We are definitely including the Route 25 corridor from the Trumbull-Monroe line, up to where it branches into Route 6 in Hawleyville.”
Dr Chaudhary said some added data gathering might occur on Route 302 from Newtown through Bethel to the Danbury line as well.
“Monitoring will continue through April and into May at heightened periods of school bus activity and closer to school bus pick-up and drop-off sites, but not at all bus stops,” he said, as an advisory to parents and children waiting for or coming from buses. The study will also involve surveying drivers in May to determine if they were aware of high visibility enforcement or HVE.
“Ultimately, the goal of HVE programs like we’ll see with our Newtown police in April is to deter behavior. Our goal is not necessarily to just issue tickets,” Dr Chaudhary said, “but to save lives.”