RSU 16 bus driver Jill Bourgeois has a new, extended stop sign that jets out 6 feet from her bus to get motorists to stop when she’s dropping off or picking up students. Bourgeois and other bus drivers say a growing number of motorists are illegally passing buses, putting students at risk. “It happens all the time,” Bourgeois said. “It’s very scary.”

POLAND — When school bus driver Jill Bourgeois dropped off students last Monday on Route 26, she got a scare.

She turned on her yellow flashing lights, indicating she was about to stop, then pulled over, turning on her red flashing lights. Her stop sign, with its red flashing lights, popped out from the side of the bus.

Looking straight ahead, she saw a tractor-trailer flatbed barreling toward her in the opposite lane. Despite her flashing reds — which indicate students could be in the road — the truck driver flew right past.

“The truck had more than enough time to stop. He just went through the lights,” Bourgeois said. “It happens all the time. It’s very scary. When people see the yellow lights, instead of slowing down they speed up, which is crazy.”

Bus drivers say the majority of motorists do stop, as required by law, for school buses picking up or dropping off students. But, they add, there’s a growing problem of vehicles not stopping, threatening the safety of students.

“They go through my lights all the time,” said Lewiston bus driver James Hopkins, who drives Bus 15 for Hudson Bus Lines. Hudson is contracted to bus Lewiston public school students. Hopkins’ runs include Lisbon Street.

Cars and trucks coming the other way have plenty of time to see his red lights, he said. “They just whistle right on by. I beep at them. They look at me; they give ME the finger! One of these days a kid’s going to run across the street” and get hit, Hopkins said. “Oohhh, I don’t want to be the bus driver.”

Central to the problem: drivers not paying attention and people in a hurry, said John Hawley, operations manager for Poland, Mechanic Falls and Minot schools.

“We live in a society where everybody has to be somewhere yesterday,” Hawley said. “Distracted driving is at an all-time high.”

And, even though the school bus law is taught in driver education classes, officials say many motorists don’t seem to realize it requires them to stop for a school bus with red lights flashing, Androscoggin Deputy Dennis Sampson said.

“They’re doing everything else but paying attention to driving,” Sampson said. It happens on busy Route 26, but also on side roads and even in the school parking lots at the Poland middle and high schools.

Sampson said he issues summonses and warns drivers that bad things “can happen in seconds.”

Illegally passing stopped school buses is a “national issue,” said Debra Plowman of the Maine Department of Education.

According to a survey conducted by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services in 2016, more than 96,000 bus drivers reported that 74,421 vehicles passed their buses illegally on a single day.

The survey captured only a fraction of violations that bus drivers and police officers know occur every day, said Leon Langley, president of the national association.

In Regional School Unit 16, which includes Poland, Mechanic Falls and Minot, Hawley said, “We’ve had near misses with students crossing the road,” with trucks and cars not making any effort to slow down. “We’re at the point we need to do something for the safety of our kids.”

So on Jan. 19, RSU 16 outfitted three of its buses with “extended stop arms.” When bus drivers stop and turn on their flashing reds, a metal arm pops out 6 feet into the road.

The arm features a red stop sign near the bus with flashing reds, plus a red stop sign at the end of the arm with flashing lights. The arms cost $1,200 per bus and were bought from a North Carolina company, Bus Safety Solutions.

In the two weeks the arms have been on the buses, Hawley said, his drivers have noticed a difference. They’re getting drivers’ attention, and fewer are passing illegally.

Even so, a few drivers have still attempted to drive around the extended arms. One man stopped his car late; it was literally under the extended arm. If he had gone any farther, his car would have crashed into the sign and sustained damage. The sign is designed to fall off, Hawley said.

Bus drivers said they’d like to see more motorists go to court and pay fines when they break the law.

“It’s gotten worse in the last two or three years,” said Heather Esty, who drives Bus 25 for Hudson Bus Lines. “The second I’ve got my yellows on, cars are flying by. We sit up high. We see their eyes and heads are down. They’re on their phones. It’s ridiculous.”

Her problem area is Main Street. Hudson Bus Line Director Peter Ouellette said other problem areas are Sabattus Street near Hannaford, Lisbon Street and Lewiston Middle School.

“We have a serious problem,” Ouellette said. “I get six or eight calls from our drivers every day. We have had some near misses. It’s terrible.”

Lewiston police have pledged to follow up and hand out citations, if they can.

“Unless we can give a full description of the car, plate number and driver, the cops have told us there’s nothing they can do,” Esty said. She added she can’t take down all that information and watch her bus and students too. “It’s very frustrating.”

Lewiston Police Department Interim Deputy Chief Adams Higgins said officers are encouraged to issue summonses on complaints “that are provable. A lot of times we get a partial plate number. Then it’s a dead-end street” trying to find the offending driver, Higgins said.

He sympathizes that bus drivers can’t get all of the information and take care of their buses, too. Lewiston Police Officer Michael Lacombe is at Lewiston Middle School every day monitoring bus safety, Higgins said.

One answer could be cameras that record passing vehicles, but there would be an expense to that, Higgins said.

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services says reducing illegal passing of buses requires a comprehensive approach that includes educating motorists and frequent, visible law enforcement.

Another way is with advances in school bus equipment.

Hawley said his district, RSU 16, is considering outfitting more buses with extended stop signs.

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A new, extended stop arm protrudes from Jill Bourgeois’ school bus in Poland last week as she drops off students on Route 26. At left, Mary Buergin walks with her grandson, Jaxon McQuillan, after he gets off the bus.

RSU 16 bus driver Linda Harvey said the problem of people illegally passing stopped school buses is getting worse.

RSU 16 Transportation Director Tom Kelly has worked for the district since 2008. Motorists illegally passing school buses is getting worse every year, he said.

RSU 16 Operations Director John Hawley said the problem of motorists not stopping for school buses is growing. “Distracted driving is at an all-time high. People are in a hurry,” he said. “We’ve had some near misses.”

RSU 16 bus driver Jill Bourgeois looks at the rearview mirror as she slows down to make a stop on Route 26 in Poland on Monday.

A Bruce M. Whittier Middle School student in Poland gets on the bus after school Wednesday. To stem a growing problem of motorists who pass school buses with red lights flashing, RSU 16 has installed extended stop arms — at $1,200 each — on three buses to get the attention of drivers.

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