ELKHART — Elkhart Community Schools is testing a new system that aims to keep students safe from cars and trucks that illegally pass stopped school buses.
Created by Safe Fleet, the system is called Predictive Stop Arm; it works like a car’s blind-spot alert.
When a bus driver deploys the stop arm, it automatically activates the radar sensors located below the stop arm. The device then uses artificial intelligence to determine whether oncoming motorists are likely to pass a stopped school bus.
The oncoming vehicle’s speed, location and acceleration or deceleration are used to help determine how and when to warn students. If an illegal pass is predicted, the system will beep to alert the bus driver and will audibly instruct students to stop.
The system was tested by Elkhart Community Schools outside the Elkhart Brass facility Monday where Safe Fleet officials gave a demonstration of how the equipment works before a crowd of school and local officials.
Of the 12,200 students enrolled at Elkhart Community Schools, about 8,000 students ride the buses.
Tony Gianesi, the district’s chief operating officer, said he believes the system would be beneficial because it’s predictive.
“Without this technology, there’s a greater danger for our students,” he said. “We see it as a great asset because it predicts when a car is going to pass a bus stop rather than if it will stop."
Elkhart Community Schools is one of a few districts around the country testing the system.
The test for the new program comes after three children were fatally struck at a school bus stop in Fulton County in October.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 102 school-age pedestrians (18 and younger) died in school-transportation-related crashes from 2006 to 2015.
Sixty-one percent were struck by school buses, 3 percent by vehicles functioning as school buses, and 36 percent by other vehicles (passenger cars, light trucks and vans, large trucks and motorcycles) involved in the crashes
Clark-Pleasant Community School Corp. in Johnson County, south of Indianapolis, has been testing the system for two months on one bus. Transportation director Bob Downin said he’s been impressed with the results.
“Since we’ve been testing it, we’ve had several motorists run the stop arm and even a bicyclist, and the system caught it,” said Downin, who was in Elkhart to testify on the success of the new technology. “I can’t say enough good about (this system), I really can’t. It hasn’t made one mistake yet.”
At Clark-Pleasant, Downin said about 87 percent of the 6,800 students enrolled at the school ride the buses. He said the district plans to equip at least seven of its buses with the system before the fall.
“Everything that’s on the bus now, until this (system) has come along, is we’re reacting to things,” he said. “We have stop arm cameras, for example, but that’s after a car has already injured somebody and then you catch them afterward. This gives us the opportunity of not getting anyone injured in the first place and that’s our goal.”
U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, a Republican from Jimtown, was also at the testing Monday. She commended Safe Fleet for seeking innovative solutions to help prevent bus tragedies.
“It’s so important that we take every opportunity to remind Hoosiers that we do share the roads with buses that are carrying precious cargo,” she said. “Every driver has a responsibility to exercise caution when students are present. That includes never passing a school bus that is stopped with red lights flashing or its arm extended.”
The congresswoman also said it’s important to look at existing measures and programs across the country to prevent illegal passing of school buses and to look at ways to improve school safety.
“That’s why I recently joined Sen. Todd Young to introduce a bipartisan legislation to help prevent these tragedies from ever happening again,” she said.
The bill is called the Stop for School Buses Act. This bipartisan legislation requires a comprehensive evaluation of methods to prevent the dangerous and illegal passing of school buses at loading zones.
Moving forward, Gianesi said, ECS is looking into installing the radar on all 160 of its buses although there’s no plan as to when the measure will be fully implemented.
“Funding sources are always an issue because funding is always planned a year ahead of time,” he said. “Time will be another issue. We’ll have to take a few buses down at a time to get installed because we have to maintain transportation operations while doing this.”
If the installation is something the corporation can pursue quickly, Gianesi said it will try to install as many systems on the buses over the summer as possible.