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Impatient drivers putting buses, children in danger

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Ellis County Press Managing Editor
RED OAK - Lights flashing, a yellow school bus slows to a stop. A little octagonal stop sign pops out on its side as children get off and start to cross the road.

But an oncoming motorist ignores the warnings and continues past the bus - breaking the law and endangering little lives.

It's called 'running the reds' in the bus business, and the scary practice happens all too frequently across Ellis County. Ask any school bus driver.

When it happens to Red Oak bus driver Don Mathews, his blood runs cold. Then he sees red. Understanding how frustrated motorists feel is no consolation.

'I had the same attitude about school buses as most people do,' said Mathews, a former chief of the Ferris Police Department. 'They want to pass that bus. They don't want to get behind it. They have no respect for that bus at all.'

But the law insists motorists must stop in either direction when a school bus turns on its flashers and stops. To 'run the reds' is a violation punishable by a fine from $200 to $1,000.

Running the reds 'is becoming a problem more and more so each year,' said Palmer's Chad Blankenship, who is in charge of bus matters as the district's director of operations.

'We're having 20 or so incidents a year.'

'What's dangerous,' said Danny Ivison, who drives Palmer bus routes, 'is when a bus is stopped on a main road. Kids have to cross the highway in front of the bus, and cars coming up behind the bus can't see the kids.'

Ivison, who pastors a church in Bristol and serves as a reporter for the Ellis County Press, tries to teach children to wait for his signal before crossing a road.

'But you've got to be careful in motioning to a child so that the driver doesn't think you're signaling him to come ahead instead.'

Close calls have taught Mathews not to trust motorists.

'You never know if people are going to stop or not,' he said. 'It's getting so bad that I won't open the door and let kids off until I find out what that car is going to do.'

Drivers get license numbers of violators, especially with students' help. 'The school will send a letter,' said Mathews, who has driven Red Oak buses for four years. 'That's all we can do. If the bus driver can't identify who was operating the auto that ran the lights, nothing else happens.'

Impatient motorists have been known to try most anything to get around a school bus, often risking vehicles and lives to save a minute or two.

Ivison looks for opportunities to allow motorists to pass. 'I've got three stretches where I can pull over and let traffic go,' he said.

That's often when he notices the good motorists.

'I stop without my lights flashing, but some cars still stop, and I have to wave them past the bus,' Ivison said.

'Every bus driver will tell you horror stories about trying to get their kids safely to and from school,' Mathews said, 'because motorists will do whatever they can to get around us.'

For instance?

'They'll go off the shoulder to beat a bus around a corner,' Mathews said. 'That's especially true for Ovilla Road and Highway 342. There's a dropoff there now, so maybe it won't be so bad.

'After I had already started my turn (from Ovilla to 342), a guy in a pickup pulled onto the shoulder and turned the corner at a high rate of speed, trying to get around,' Mathews said. 'He almost made it, but his rear end bounced against the bus as he came up out of the ditch.'

No children were hurt in the accident. 'It's a miracle more aren't, for all the things people do to get around buses,' he said.

'I've had people go like a bat out of hell to get around my bus, then I'll pull up right behind them at a light further down the road,' Mathew said. 'For the chance they took, it didn't gain them much.'

School police are positioned at trouble spots when possible to stop offenders and issue tickets. 'That'll stop it for a week or so,' Mathews said, 'then it'll start back up again.'

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