Faced with an escalating number of school bus accidents, the Lafayette Parish School System will soon take to the airwaves to remind motorists of the rules of the road when it comes to the big yellow school bus.
School Board member Erick Knezek enlisted the help of Cox Communications, which offered an in-kind donation to produce and air public service announcements featuring new Superintendent Don Aguillard and Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mike Neustrom.
They offer friendly reminders to drivers about driving laws and the importance of caution when in traffic with school buses.
In announcing the partnership during the Wednesday board meeting, Knezek said it’s an opportunity for the board to be proactive in helping to reduce the number of bus accidents.
“We’re going on an aggressive campaign to remind people that school buses are out there,” Knezek said Wednesday.
The communications company produced similar public service announcements for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system last year, said Patricia Thompson, Cox Communications public affairs manager.
“We’re excited to partner with the school system and get the message in front of parents and drivers,” Thompson said. “We think the PSAs will get high reach on networks like Fox News, CNN and Discovery. We have 72 networks that we can tag for PSAs. We can be very targeted. We’re not just targeting parents but anyone who’s behind the wheel of a car.”
The in-kind donation is worth about $50 each time it airs, Thompson said.
School system Transportation Director Damon Evans said the spots will be short — 15- to 30-second messages reminding drivers that school buses move more slowly and take wider turns, and to be patient, among other tips.
“It’s all about bus safety: passing a bus — when to pass, when not to pass — and loading and unloading buses,” Evans said. “It’s a message to everybody to remember: ‘It’s a bus. They’re slower than everyone else.’ ”
Between the start of the school year and mid-March, there were 69 accidents involving Lafayette Parish school buses, though bus drivers weren’t at fault in 40 of those accidents. By comparison, there were only 68 accidents in all of the 2013-14 school year.
School system records of the 40 accidents where the bus driver was not at fault show various causes, such as rear-end accidents, vehicles turning in front of buses or a vehicle swerving into the bus’ lane of travel.
The accident data have been reviewed to develop specific safety training for drivers, including defensive driving refreshers that drivers involved in accidents will be required to take, Evan said.
In March, one bus driver resigned after he was cited with careless operation and suspected of drunk driving after driving into a ditch while transporting elementary school children.
The driver, John Harvey Bernard, was arrested this week after results showed his blood-alcohol content was at 0.04 at the time of the crash. While the blood-alcohol content for presumption of drunk driving is 0.08, state law drops that limit to 0.02 for on-duty commercial bus drivers.
The number of accidents in the past two years has produced more liability claims, resulting in a needed $678,264 boost to the School Board’s $2.3 million insurance claims account due to claims on accidents in the past two years.
Last school year, bus drivers were determined to be at fault in 36 of the 68 accidents; and in the 2012-13 school year, drivers were at fault in 27 of the total 65 accidents.
The school system is also considering adjusting school times, Evans said, because buses transporting middle school students are on the road during the height of afternoon traffic between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.
“They added 20 minutes to the school day, so now middle schools are getting out at 4 o’clock, which is putting us still on the road for 4:30 and 5 o’clock traffic,” Evans said. “We’ve seen a rise in accidents because of heavier traffic situations. That’s the main mitigating factor of why we’re having extra accidents.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.