Every week, drivers “scream” past stationary school buses with their red lights flashing.
“Several times a week,” said John Jevons, a local school bus driver. “It happens far too often. It’s not once or twice a month. I hear it on the radio. Sometimes it’s multiple drivers a day.”
Failure to stop at stop signs and traffic lights and unlawfully passing school buses are issues of concern for local police, but their small departments limit time spent enforcing the crimes. Residents also have a constricted role in catching the perpetrators.
Local law enforcement officials said they patrol the Central Peninsula’s roadways to deter traffic violations rather than to apprehend offenders.
“The goal is not to arrest or write citations but to stop the illegal actions,” said Soldotna Police Sgt. Rob Quelland. “We want to keep people driving safe and free of dangerous drivers.”
In 2011, the Kenai Police Department cited 85 drivers for failing to stop at stop signs and 25 drivers for failing to stop at red traffic signals.
However, no citations were written for failing to stop for school buses.
Soldotna Police cited 31, 29 and zero of the same statistics, respectively.
Drivers who illegally pass buses are hard to report. License plates on residents’ vehicles are dirty and unreadable, Jevons said.
“It’s a miracle these dangerous drivers haven’t killed somebody, and that’s not an exaggeration,” he said.
His bus was totaled March 7 while conducting a “dry run,” an initial test of a new route required by contract. A truck passed a slowing car; not realizing the bus had come to a stop.
Alaska State Troopers report the truck was speeding at 60 miles per hour. The bus lifted off of the ground, Jevons said.
As of March 9, he remained at Central Peninsula Hospital with neck and pelvic injuries.
A total of 38 percent of fatalities of students loading onto and unloading from school buses are caused by vehicles passing the bus illegally, according to the National School Bus Loading and Unloading Service.
Each department on the Peninsula ideally maintains one to two officers patrolling the roads each day. Limited resources, however, hamper their ability to patrol during shifts and in between calls to service.
“To put it in perspective, we receive over 600 calls for service per month on average,” said Kenai Police Sgt. Gus Sandahl. “So, when you have two or three officers on duty at a time they’re going to be responding to calls throughout the day.”
Enforcing traffic violations and targeting aggressive drivers is a priority, he said.
Noon to 6 p.m. is the best time for officers to patrol the roads. Sandahl said his department’s yearly statistics show this 6-hour period contains the highest number of car crashes.
There is also time allotted for officers to patrol problem areas with high occurrences of criminal activity and off-road violations.
In 2006, as many as 245 crashes, 190 injuries and two fatalities in Alaska were attributed to running red lights. Nationally, public costs for red light running crashes exceed $14 billion per year, according to the Alaska Highway Safety Office.
Residents can report drivers who speed through red lights and stop signs, but often little is achieved with the secondhand information, officials said. An officer cannot validate the alleged violation. A person must be willing to testify in court. It helps police if there were multiple witnesses to the violation, such as a passenger or students waiting for a school bus.
On the one hand, concerned citizens step forward with claims of traffic violations.
“In those scenarios it’s less likely someone will be cited,” Sandahl said. “But it depends; some people are very adamant about what they’ve witnessed.”
On the other hand, when police contact the driver who allegedly committed the violation, he or she is certain no unlawful actions were committed. This makes it hard for authorities to establish probable cause.
Failing to stop at a stop sign is a $100 fine and four points are added to the driver’s record, and failing to stop at a traffic light is $150 and four points. Passing a school bus with its lights flashing is a criminal offense with a mandatory court appearance and six points added to a record.
A vehicle passing a school bus is a serious offense, Quelland said.
“The bus driver takes all the precautions to make sure the kids are safe,” he said. “It’s far worse than speeding or running a stop sign, but I think most people are cautious of (flashing) lights while driving.”
Law enforcement officials work with First Student, a leading school bus transportation services company, which uses a detailed reporting system that sends information to dispatch via the bus driver. The model of the vehicle, a description of the driver and direction of travel, as well as other details, are included in the reports.