Be alert, motorists, for students starting school today

As 14,000 students head back to school across Bartholomew County this morning, public safety and transportation officials are asking for patience and caution as buses head out and students venture into crosswalks near school buildings.

Karen Wetherald, director of transportation for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., asked motorists to be patient this morning and for the first few weeks of school. As the new school year begins, bus drivers are getting used to their routes and getting to know a new group of students, she said.

“There might be some delays at first,” she said of buses lingering at stops a little longer than some motorists might feel is necessary. But that’s because bus drivers are making sure all riders are safe, secure and ready to leave for school, including the prekindergarten 4-year-olds who might be leaving their parents at the bus stop for the first time.

“There can be attachment issues, and they are learning how to ride a bus,” Wetherald said of the 4-year-olds.

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Each year, the return of classes also brings another ongoing issue back into focus —┬ámotorists obeying school bus stop arms.

Motorists don’t always pay attention as the bus stop arms are being deployed, and they miss signs that a bus is slowing and preparing to stop, Wetherald said.

“It’s a huge safety issue,” she said. “I always tell families and drivers that people need to allow enough stop time — never assume a bus isn’t going to stop,” she said.

“There are a lot more distractions going on,” Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers said of the environment motorists find themselves in on the first day of school.

“The first thing is, everybody’s excited, kids are walking to school — riding their bikes — getting out of cars — walking to bus stops,” he said.

When drivers are distracted on cellphones around schools or just not paying attention, there can be dangerous consequences, the sheriff said.

“Put the phones down — limit the distractions,” Myers said.

He urged students to use crosswalks and avoid crossing streets at random locations, where they might not be seen by oncoming traffic.

He reminded drivers that motorists must stop in all directions for buses when a stop arm is deployed unless there is a grass or a concrete median between lanes of traffic. If there is a median, drivers behind the school bus must stop in both lanes while the stop arm is out.

“There are some county roads that have hills, and buses do make stops in those areas,” Myers said.

Motorists need to be prepared and pay attention if a bus is picking up students in the area, he said.

Columbus police and sheriff’s deputies will be patrolling near school zones this morning, a common practice on the first few days of school as motorists adjust to buses on the road and students walking or riding bikes to school.

Many parents and students attended open houses at elementary schools Tuesday night where they could meet their bus drivers and learn pickup times and bus stop locations, Wetherald said. The school corporation is asking parents to allow 15 minutes on either side of the stated pickup time for buses to arrive because drivers and students are still learning the system.

If a student gets on the wrong bus stop by mistake, Wetherald assured parents that the bus driver will identify the student, where the student attends school and get the student to school.

“They won’t just drive by. They will take them where they need to be,” she said.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.