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By HYONHEE SHIN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Will Michigan be the next state to prohibit school bus drivers from using cell phones behind the wheel?
The proposed ban was inspired by a 2004 crash in Alexandria, Va., where a bus carrying students smashed into a stone overpass, crushing the roof.
The driver was talking on a hands-free cell phone and told investigators he didn’t see low-clearance signs. There were no deaths, but 11 high school students were injured, the National Transportation Safety Board reported.
“School bus drivers using cell phones put children at risk,” said Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, the bill’s sponsor.
Under Kahn’s bill, drivers would be forbidden to use cell phones when the bus is in motion or pupils are getting on or off.
Violations would carry a maximum fine of $100.
Cell phone distraction causes 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries in the United States every year, according to the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, a California-based nonprofit organization. It’s illegal to use cell phones while operating a school bus in 17 states and the District of Columbia.
In Michigan last year, none of 982 reported crashes involving school buses was caused by cell phone use by the drivers, according to the Office of Highway Safety Planning.
However, Lynn Sutfin, public information and marketing coordinator for the agency, cautioned that cell phone use is often underreported.
“Unless drivers admit they were using a cell phone or they were observed by a witness to be in use of a phone at the time of the crash, no one is going to know,” said Sutfin.
Each day, more than 810,000 students in Michigan ride a school bus, traveling more than 10 million miles annually, she said.
The Education Department’s Pupil Transportation Advisory Committee noted that cell phone use is a driver distraction that jeopardizes public safety, especially when children are boarding or getting off buses.
The committee said cell phones should be allowed only in case of emergency, and the best practice is to turn them off while the bus is in operation.
But Sgt. Matt Bolger, legislative liaison for the State Police, said there’s a concern that school bus drivers need a way to communicate easily.
“They used to communicate using radios,” said Bolger. “But they took those out now because they have cell phones.”
Mark Bielang, Paw Paw Public Schools superintendent and president of the American Association of School Administrators, said his organization doesn’t have a formal position on the legislation but he believes the bill is well-intentioned if it’s meant to promote student safety.
“In our district, we’ve provided cell phones to our drivers as a means of communication in cases of emergency,” he said. “They’re not to use them for personal use or at any time that might compromise student safety.”
Bielang said he hopes the Legislature won’t “over-regulate” the situation.
“One of the drawbacks I see when it comes to the statement of ‘whenever students are boarding or exiting a bus’ is that it doesn’t specify circumstances,” said Bielang. “For example, there are times when a school bus is parked and the engine is not running, when students are boarding and-or exiting the bus where cell phone usage would not be a concern.
“I’ve seen our drivers parked in the elementary school lot at the end of the school day talking with each other about whether or not certain students are on their bus. They’re doing this while the buses are parked and not running. I’d hate to see them fined for trying to help students,” he said.
Centreville Public Schools Superintendent Bill Miller said he opposes a ban.
“Emergency contacts are essential for the safety of the students, such as when drivers go on long field trips or long athletic trips,” said Miller. “This outweighs the negative of being on the cell phone for a few moments.
“They can pull off of the road if contacted, but don’t take away our ability to make contact with drivers a distance from our schools,” said Miller.
The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. John Pappageorge, R-Troy, and pending in the Senate Education Committee.
© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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