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With school starting, safety is on everyone’s mind
August 9, 2019

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After the tragic events last school year that saw two young girls lose their lives at or near bus stops, improving safety is on the forefront of everyone's mind in the community.

With a new school year set to begin, over 49,000 children across the county will venture to bus stops every morning, sometimes when visibility is low and lighting is scarce.

"Always a new year, always new challenges," said Roger Lloyd, director of transportation for The School District of Lee County.

There are always new challenges and moving parts to ensuring the safety of children, said Lloyd, but it's a challenge the district prepares for each year.

That preparation includes a "dry run" for bus drivers, where they perfect their route and look for hazards along the way.

"They're checking the stops for safety. They pull up, they make sure it's a safe, legitimate stop, working through any kinks that might be in there so we can get them fixed (for the beginning of the year)," said Lloyd. "As they pull up -- and they've all been trained -- it needs to be a safe location for the kids. They're checking overheads, any kind of electrical lines, wires, landscaping. They're looking at all of it."

Visibility is a major part of early morning bus stops and routes, and is something bus drivers check on as well, said Lloyd.

"Stops need to have 200 feet of visibility in both directions. So as they stop they're checking in front of them, behind them. Even as they approach the stop, they're making sure the walking conditions to the stop in all the different directions are safe," said Lloyd. "They might notice that, 'Hey, if I go one more block up it probably would be even safer, so why don't we look at moving the stop there.' That's when my safety department here in transportation gets involved. If it's deemed that that's a better stop, we'll move the stop there."

Sharon Walker, who has been driving school busses for 14 years with the county, said safety is her, and all drivers, No.1 priority.

"I have to look out for safety first and foremost, and that's the most important thing that I look for," said Walker. "I have to make sure that the vehicles in front of me are driving as cautiously as I am. I make sure the kids are safe not just on the bus, but at the bus stops as well."

Walker noted that she does see other drivers on the road not following the law, such as flying by a bus that has its hazard lights on and stop-arm out.

"I see it a lot," Walker said. "Cars are riding by without stopping. Other drivers actually get angry when they see that, too."

Lloyd mentioned that law enforcement throughout all municipalities has been great with traffic enforcement when bus drivers see poor behavior on the road.

Lloyd also said that officers will go to bus stops where there have been reports of children playing in the road to remind them of the dangers and to practice safer behavior.

Walker's goal, she said, is always to make sure she transports the precious cargo on her bus in a timely, but safe manner -- and making sure the students know that is key.

"I try to form a relationship -- not a personal relationship -- just a relationship so they know that I'm there to make sure they get home safely and get to school safely," said Walker.

Lloyd said that his drivers are the eyes and ears of the road, and really play a vital role in reporting hazardous areas.

"We check into everything with our drivers," said Lloyd. "When they make changes, they mark (potential changes) on their route sheet. They're really the brains of the operation. That's what these dry runs are for, is to catch anything.

"That's why you send them out there. You really want to make sure we have the kids in the safest location."

Lloyd also said that being alert is something he stresses to drivers, as well as obeying the rules of the road.

"With our drivers, they're going to follow the law as far as speed limits and stop signs, and they know that. They risk their CDL license if they don't do that. But really, it's to be on your toes and be aware," said Lloyd.

After the aforementioned incidents last year, driving home safety to employees is at the top of the list.

"My drivers, definitely, we tell them, and we always have -- and obviously really reinforced it -- 'take a good hard look at these stops. Take the time, that's why we have you out here,'" said Lloyd.

There are 708 full-time drivers and 94 substitute drivers in the county.

There are also 75,000 eligible students for bussing in Lee County, which is made up of just over 95,000 students. The district said that they provide service to at least 49,000 daily bus riders.

Countless bus drivers will have practice runs of their own before school begins on Aug. 12.

"While we call it a dry run, most of, if not all of these drivers will do it two, three, four times (before the school year)," said Lloyd.

There are 728 daily routes county-wide, that includes 6,504 bus stop locations -- and they are ever-changing.

"A bus stop that is safe and sound today, might change next week," said Lloyd. "Changes are continuous. We will have thousands by the end of the year."

For example, Lloyd said that construction in Cape Coral is playing a role in stops being moved around.

A movement in Cape Coral started after the city was shaken by the deaths of two young girls.

"Those were just tragedies. I mean there's no way to describe it -- it's terrible," said Lloyd. "Nobody wants to go through that. It really has been, I believe, a new focus throughout the community."

Two groups stepped up to the plate and started placing benches around the city at bus stops for children to sit on and to remind drivers that there may be children present.

There are roughly 1,200 bus stops in the city, with 675 semi-permanent, including 450 semi-permanent that are already in lit areas.

"Benches For Our Babes" has placed 200 picnic-style benches around the Cape, while the Rotary Club and Kiwanis have placed 200 6-foot benches made of composite recycled plastic on concrete slabs.

"My heart is so full," said Nicole Fitzpatrick, a founding member of Benches For Our Babes, on members of the community stepping up to "adopt" benches and to keep them up-to-date during the summer.

She said they are still looking for people to adopt benches to paint, coat and keep tidy throughout the school year.

While she said benches do help, it might not be a permeant solution -- but at least is a landmark that tells drivers to be more cautious. She said she would love to see more effort from the district and the community to make Cape Coral the safest it can be for children.

"A school is a safe zone, and our children should be safe while waiting to go to their safe zone," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm tired of the finger pointing, everybody plays a role. These kids are our future."

Lloyd said that spreading the message to parents and children alike is something the district has bolstered coming into this year.

"It's definitely a hot button issue right now," said Lloyd. "And again, it should be. It's the safety of our kids. It is tragic that an accident such as the two we had last year, but it's not a bad thing that this is on the forefront of everybody's mind."

His message to parents?

"We tell the parents, 'If you see a problem with your stop, let us know.' I can tell you, when we placed the stop there, it passed the criteria from the state and what we do here in the district," said Lloyd. "Please take a look at the website that the district has put up. It's extremely educational and it'll talk about safe behavior. Just teaching the kids to be aware of their surroundings. I know the schools -- the individual schools -- have always done it, but this is an opportunity for us to really stress it on a regular basis."

Lloyd said a survey will be sent out in December to parents, teachers and students about bus stop safety and how to improve it.

"We very much are looking forward to that data and seeing how it impacts the safety," said Lloyd. "If there's anything good to be taken out of this, it's just as a community, that we all become more aware of the yellow busses. Hopefully when they see a yellow bus, it does heighten their sense of awareness."

-- Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj

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