Drivers not watching Modesto school bus find CHP watching them

School bus safety operation in Modesto

California Highway Patrol officers rode with and followed behind Modesto students to look for drivers violating traffic laws regarding school buses.
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California Highway Patrol officers rode with and followed behind Modesto students to look for drivers violating traffic laws regarding school buses.

“When you’re driving, you’re kind of in your own world.”

Not what a cop wants to hear from a driver pulled over for a violation. Because being in your own world is pretty much the exact opposite of safe behavior when behind the wheel of a vehicle.

But it’s what one apologetic woman said after driving past a school bus that had its red lights flashing and stop-sign arm extended as students disembarked.

She told California Highway Patrol Officer Dan Balos she didn’t see the stop sign out because the sun was in her eyes. He pointed out that he saw her using her cell phone, and she admitted that turning off her music probably was a bigger distraction than the sun.

The driver was let off with a written warning, as were a couple of others who were pulled over in Modesto Tuesday morning during a statewide enforcement operation.

CHP Officer Thomas Olsen rode on Modesto City Schools bus 112, driven by Maria Villa. As she picked up students bound for Downey High, La Loma Junior High, John Muir Elementary and Elliott Alternative Education Center, Olsen told them what was going on.

He watched for driver violations as he rode the bus and got on and off with students. By radio, he communicated what he saw to Balos, who was following in a patrol car, trying when possible to keep some distance from the bus.

Much of the time, though, Balos was clearly visible to attentive drivers. Villa and MCS bus dispatch supervisor Felicia Guice — also riding 112 — said that visible presence seemed to bring out better behavior by drivers. Because day in and day out, people driving right past buses with lights on and signs extended pose a danger to schoolchildren, CHP and MSC officials agreed.

Too many drivers aren’t attentive, and cell phone usage behind the wheel has become a huge issue, said Sandy Tyler, school bus instructor for the district. Driver impatience is another big issue.

“They cut in front of you,” Tyler said. “They don’t want to be behind you because they can’t see around you. Even if your reds are on, they shoot past you.”

When loading and unloading kids, a driver often is out peeking around both sides of the bus because drivers simply don’t stop, she said.

In addition to inattention and impatience, driver confusion and ignorance of traffic laws can come into play. Tuesday morning, a driver who was behind the bus and in front of Balos’ patrol car pulled to the side of the road and stopped when they did, though neither vehicle had its lights on. Apparently, the driver quickly realized that he or she didn’t need to do that, so pulled back into traffic.

Olsen said that despite education efforts, a lot of drivers don’t appear to grasp what to do when a bus is stopping. When a bus flashes its red lights (located at the top front and back of the bus), all drivers must stop from either direction until the children are safely across the street and the lights stop flashing. Failure to stop may result in a fine of up to $1,000 and suspension of driving privileges for a year.

“I just say, when in doubt, stop,” Olsen said. Any predictable collision is preventable, he said. “Is it predictable a kid could run across the street after getting off a bus? Absolutely.”

Modesto City Schools transports more than 7,000 students a day. It has 42 bus routes and a little over 50 drivers.

While the school district officials and several parents along Villa’s route showed their appreciation for the CHP presence Tuesday, Guice noted that a lot of other eyes are on drivers every school day. When a driver fails to stop for a bus, it really rattles the kids on board, she said.

“The kids witness the bad behavior of the drivers. They come up out of their seats; they’re trying to get the license plates. It really sets the bus off.”

A bunch of schoolchildren suddenly trying to be traffic officers sounds like a positive, but it has a downside. “Getting them back under control and getting them to school becomes challenging just by someone running the reds,” Guice said.