By ADAM COATES
An estimated 450,000 school buses transport more than 24 million children to and from school in the United States every day, according to statistics from the national School Bus Information Council.
Despite efforts to keep the routes safe, accidents happen from time to time, as was the case this week when a man from Laporte, Ind. died after the sport-utility vehicle he was driving collided head-on with a school bus in northern Arizona.
The driver of the school bus and one student were injured in the Monday collision and seven others -- ranging in age from one- to nine-years-old -- were treated for minor scrapes and bumps at the scene and then released.
Police said it appeared the driver fell asleep at the wheel and crossed the center line.
Back home in Indiana, a group of North Putnam school bus drivers and other officials have committed themselves to becoming more aggressive in their efforts to prevent major accidents, like the one that occurred in Arizona this week, from happening here.
"I think it's very important," bus driver Michelle Hager said Wednesday as Roachdale Elementary students in teacher Deb Denny's classroom watched a video on school bus safety.
"They're not taught these things at home," she said. "The parents don't know these things to teach them."
In conjunction with National School Bus Safety Week, teams of bus drivers volunteered their time Wednesday morning to talk to kids at Roachdale and Bainbridge elementaries.
The drivers targeted students from kindergarten through third grade with an interactive video presentation featuring a cartoon about safety, plus a hands-on tour of a school bus where children were shown the proper way to enter and exit the vehicle.
Bus driver Amy Winings said it is important for children to know that they should always look both ways before crossing the street to get on the bus, even though the stop arm on the school bus is out and the lights are flashing.
She said kids also need to know that they should walk far enough in front of the bus so that the driver can see them at all times.
"We want the kids to know that when the bus stops, they need to look at the driver first and then wait until they signal them to come on across," Winings said.
Although the bus drivers at the schools Wednesday said they weren't aware of any major accidents having occurred on North Putnam school buses, they were equally as concerned with preventing them from ever happening.
Hager said part of her bus route includes U.S .231 and that nearly every day there is a car that fails to stop when the stop arm is extended and the lights are flashing.
"It's upsetting," she said, adding that she tries to structure her stops in such a way that children don't have to cross both lanes of the highway to get on the bus.
In Indiana and all states, it's against the law for drivers to ignore the stop sign and flashing lights of a school bus.
The law says a school bus driver who sees a car fail to stop, known as a "stop-arm violation," can take down the license plate number of the car and give it to the school corporation's transportation director. The director then turns the information over to the county prosecutor who tracks down the driver's address and sends them a citation.
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the penalty for such actions in Indiana is $68. If it is witnessed by a police officer, the fine can be much higher and the violator's license can be suspended for up to two years.
School officials in Fayette County, Ind., have also stepped up measures to improve safety for children by installing flashing headlights on their buses, similar to those seen on police and fire vehicles.
According to a report from the NHTSA, there is a kit that school corporations can buy to retrofit existing buses with the flashing headlights. They cost around $95 apiece.
Fayette County officials have reported a significant improvement in drivers who stop when they see the lights, according to the report.
Locally, the bus drivers who spoke to students on Wednesday are not just concerned about what goes on outside the school bus.
North Putnam Assistant Superintendent Kevin Emsweller says it's important for the students themselves to observe the rules and to maintain a "civilized" atmosphere inside the bus.
"That's just one less thing the driver will have to worry about," he said.
Children are taught to remain in their seats at all times and to not block the aisles either with their bodies or their bookbags. They are also required to be respectful to one another and the bus driver.
Emsweller said the idea for this week's school visits came from Randy Neeley who handles safety for the corporation's transportation department.
"Randy came up with the idea last year and we're finally getting it off the ground," he said. "The bus drivers are just really excited about it."
Emsweller said he plans to sit down with the drivers later this week and discuss their reactions to meeting with the children. He said the corporation is considering making this an annual activity during National Bus Safety Week.
"I don't think anyone has been hurt, so we're just trying to prevent that," Hager said.
North Putnam Community Schools has about 30 bus routes in the northern half of the county and they bus approximately 1,500 kids to and from school every day.