School buses pass first test of new school year

COVINGTON - Students are all spiffed up in their best back-to-school clothes and the classrooms are spic and span for the 2009-10 school year, but school buses look the same. They have, however, undergone a thorough check-up to ensure the safety of students, and motorists should be prepared to watch for them on the county roadways, according to the Georgia State Patrol.

Chief Mark McLeod, commander of the Motor Carrier Compliance Division, said officers have inspected almost 18,000 school buses across the state during the past 12 months, according to a press release from the GSP.

Georgia law requires that school buses be inspected annually to ensure they are in safe operating condition, and Newton County School System's buses are no exception.

"Our fleet of more than 260 buses has passed inspections and is ready for the first day of school," NCSS Superintendent Steven Whatley said in a welcome-back letter on the system's Web site. "Last year our buses traveled almost 5,000,000 miles transporting students to and from school and to extracurricular events."

Col. Bill Hitchens, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, said in the GSP release the annual school bus inspections have historically been instrumental in locating potential problems before mechanical breakdowns occur.

"School transportation directors across the state do an excellent job each year to keep school buses in the best running condition possible. Their efforts make for the safe transportation of school children in Georgia each day," he said.

During the inspection, a school bus is thoroughly checked from top to bottom as well as a visual inspection made of the passenger compartment.

"Among the equipment officers check during an inspection are the tires, brakes, exhaust system, fluids, belts, hoses, headlights, marker lights, stop lights and mirrors. Any defects found must be corrected before the school bus is put in service to transport children and a school bus certificate of safety inspection is issued," the release states.

Another component to school bus safety is the motorists on the roadways.

The GSP warns drivers to be on the lookout for buses and to be aware that troopers will be keeping a close watch for school zone violations.

"Troopers will also be watching for people who fail to stop for a school bus that is stopped to load or unload passengers," Hitchens said in the release.

He reminded drivers that Georgia law requires vehicles to stop when overtaking or meeting a stopped school bus that is loading or unloading passengers.

"Vehicles are required to stop in both directions for a stopped school bus that is displaying its red stop lights and has the stop arm activated, except on a controlled-access highway or when the highway is divided into separate roadways," he said. "After stopping, you may proceed only when the school bus resumes motion or when the flashing lights are no longer activated."

He also advised to leave adequate amounts of space around school buses.

"Drivers who tailgate a school bus are not prepared for the frequent stops a bus must make. Just as we caution drivers about leaving more space around tractor trailers, drivers should not tailgate a school bus and not cut them off in traffic," he said.

Fatal traffic crashes involving school buses occur most often when the driver of the smaller passenger vehicle strikes the school bus, the press release states.

"Drivers should always exercise caution around a school bus and observe the posted speed limit in school zones," Hitchens said, adding that a conviction for unlawfully passing a stopped school bus carries six points on a driving record. "For drivers under the age 21, a conviction for unlawfully passing a stopped school bus will result in a six-month suspension of your driver's license."

Also, drivers should be on the alert for children who are waiting for their school bus to arrive.

"Children are not always alert to the dangers around them at school bus stops," he said. "Drivers should be prepared to stop when approaching children waiting for a school bus."

Barbara Knowles can be reached at barbara.knowles@newtoncitizen.com