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Climbing the steps

I remember standing with my children waiting for the school bus to come. In mid-winter, the mornings were usually dark and cold. The bus would emerge with the dawn. Then, I’d watch as my children’s little legs took the huge steps up into the bus’s interior. I’d greet the driver and entrust my precious cargo into her care. That was years ago, and those former school bus passengers are now adults. Yet, the tradition continues, and a new generation of learners currently climbs similar steps on its way to the future.

A few weeks ago, I stopped for a Prince Edward County school bus as a group of children boarded. In the dim morning of winter’s dawn, I watched them cross a fairly busy road, prepared for a day of learning. As I sat there waiting, I was perplexed. As the students boarded, I wondered why the bus flashed lights of amber instead of red. I worried about what could have happened if someone unfamiliar with the location of the school bus stops had been driving along and failed to realize the need to stop for lights that weren’t red. I shuddered recalling headlines of past tragedies.

Not many days after, I watched children disembark from a Buckingham County School bus. I noticed there were a double set of lights atop the front of the bus. As the bus approached its stopping point, it flashed the commonly seen yellow caution lights. This set of lights comprised the inside pair. As it prepared for the students to climb down its steps, the lights switched to the outside pair. To my shock, I observed that they weren’t clearly red. They were merely slightly more orange in tint than the inside lights. The mystery of why the bus I’d seen earlier was flashing what appeared to be amber when I expected to see red was perhaps solved.

Since then, I’ve been paying closer attention to school bus warning lights. I’ve seen school buses on other routes from both these counties and from other nearby places flash unmistakably red lights. As a result, I wondered if the ambiguous color of the flashing lights on some school buses might be linked to vehicle age or model. I wondered whether bulbs or lenses initially designed to be bright red may have faded after several seasons under Virginia’s sun.

As every licensed Virginia driver knows, the law requires that vehicles stop when encountering school buses with flashing red lights. According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, and possibly less well known among the general population, another legal detail requires vehicles to stop whenever a school bus is loading or unloading its passengers, even if its warning lights are not activated. In other words, when encountering a school bus, a motorist should always be watchful and prepared to stop. If the bus stops, stop.

I’d like to ask my fellow motorists who share local roads with the fleets of school buses that collect and convey our neighbor’s children to please slow down. When you see children waiting beside the road for a school bus, consider that only a very few have ever driven a car or truck. Most don’t understand about stopping distances. They don’t realize how hard it is to see in poor light. And, they’ve never been behind the wheel as the morning or afternoon sun glares through a windshield creating blinding conditions for even the most vigilant eyes. Courteous and cautious motorists can help improve safety by anticipating the possibility that children may make careless moves.

Next, I’d like to make a plea to school bus fleet operators. Please check the warning lights on the buses under your care. If you find that colors have faded and red is no longer as red as it once was, take whatever steps are needed to restore the clarity of the vehicle’s alert system. Motorists don’t want to injure the children under your care, and you can help prevent accidents by eliminating ambiguities.

And, finally, I’d like to thank the school bus drivers who faithfully collect their charges every school day and return them safely home. Our community’s future rides in your hands.

KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress. com.