GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Forest Hills Public Schools is one of 10 districts across the state piloting a new lighting alert system on buses in an effort to better communicate what drivers should do when approaching a stopped school bus.
The law says drivers must stop if a school bus has its red lights flashing, but several recent studies have shown that thousands of drivers don't stop because they don't know the rules, can't see the lights, or aren't paying attention.
Data from a 2014 national study of school bus drivers found that in a single school day in Michigan more than 600 drivers passed stopped school buses. Across the U.S. in a single day nearly 76,000 motorists passed a stopped school bus with children either entering or exiting. In 2013, more than 1,000 instances were recorded in a single day by Michigan school bus drivers.
The new lighting system being tested on a handful of buses is designed to stop these so-called "pass-bys" by placing lights closer to a driver's eye-level.
“From a motoring public standpoint, if I’m driving in my car those lights are nine feet high off the ground, so this new device brings it down halfway to where it may align more with their vision," said Darryl Hofstra, transportation director for Forest Hills Public Schools.
"It’s been placed here in the center of the rear door on the back of the bus and it’s tied into the hazard lights as well as the overall flashing lights."
In addition to the usual flashing lights and stop signs drivers have grown accustomed to, the new lighting system will also display explicit text reading "Stop" and "Do not pass" on the rear door of the bus.
“Our thinking, and our hope, is that it will improve people’s understanding of what to do," Hofstra said.
Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, began pursuing changes following a 2011 crash that killed two Ravenna teens when the vehicle they were riding in rear-ended a school bus. The family of Antonia,13, and Bruce Privacky, 16, has also been fighting for the changes in wake of the crash.
“We'll never really ever know what would've helped, but if they had visible lights flashing at eye level, that might've helped save their lives," Hughes told FOX 17.
Hughes said the working toward changes in wake of the crash led to more research where she discovered vehicle "pass-bys" are a huge problem.
The schools participating in the pilot program—including Forest Hills, Ravenna, Zeeland, West Ottawa and Van Buren ISD—have been conducting their own studies on pass-bys. Each district has a handful of buses retrofitted with the new lighting, and the data collected will later be used to determine whether the system is a worthwhile investment, Hofstra said.
Based on the outcome of the pilot program, Hughes will then decide whether to continue pursuing legislation that would mandate every new bus in the state be outfitted with the lighting system, which costs about $300 for each bus. Local districts would foot the bill under their transportation budgets and would have the option to retrofit existing buses with the new technology.