Montana Co-op Boosts School Bus Safety After Child is Hurt in Accident

In Montana, a $5,000 grant from Flathead Electric Co-op’s Roundup for Safety program will help three Montana school districts buy longer stop-sign arms. (Photo By: Hilary Matheson, Daily Inter Lake)
In Montana, a $5,000 grant from Flathead Electric Co-op’s Roundup for Safety program will help three Montana school districts buy longer stop-sign arms. (Photo By: Hilary Matheson, Daily Inter Lake)

When a 6-year-old girl was struck by a car and badly injured after she got off a school bus last fall, her Montana community organized a grassroots group to improve safety.

That group, Jordana’s Alliance for Bus Safety, can now count Flathead Electric Cooperative as a supporter.

Recently, the Kalispell, Montana, co-op donated $5,000 to the Flathead Community Foundation to equip school buses in three Montana school districts with longer swing arms directing motorists to stop when children are getting on and off. The foundation helps fund Jordana’s Alliance.

The grassroots group is named for Jordana Hubble, who sustained a traumatic brain injury after being hit by a vehicle when she got off a school bus near Whitefish, Montana, last November. She was trying to cross a highway when she was struck by a car that failed to stop, despite the bus’s red lights and stop-sign arm being fully activated, according to news reports.

The co-op’s Roundup for Safety awarded the funds earlier this month. It supports a wide variety of safety-related projects, such as infrared equipment for first responders and security lighting.

Wendy Ostrom Price, the co-op’s public relations officer and liaison with Roundup for Safety, said that vehicles illegally passing school buses in her neighborhood were one reason why she drove her son, now 25, to school when he was younger.

“It’s amazing what a difference (the safety arms) can make,” she said. “Sadly, it didn’t happen in time to prevent this tragic incident but, hopefully, it will prevent others going forward.”

Price plans to spotlight the project on her daily radio show, “What’s Going On,” which will run a series on the bus safety effort.

All 50 states ban motorists from passing a school bus with its red lights flashing and stop-arm extended. But more than 20% of the nation’s school bus drivers reported that motorists passed their stopped buses in a single day, according to the latest survey by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services in 2018.

“We know that students are far safer in school buses, but cars passing school buses is one of the most troubling problems we face, because it is so common and can lead to injury or death,” said Diana Hollander, the group’s president.

The longer stop-sign arms advocated by Jordana’s Alliance for Bus Safety extend 6 feet out to the middle of oncoming traffic, making them harder for motorists to ignore. An individual arm costs about $2,700 to purchase and install, according to campaign officials. They said costs go down for bulk orders.

Fed up with “red runners”—motorists who blow past school buses as they’re loading and unloading students—retired school bus driver Dennis “Griz” Woldstad and his wife, Melina, spearheaded the bus safety campaign shortly after Hubble’s accident.

“I would have a ‘red runner’ once a week, or maybe two a week, and today the rate is more like four or five a day. And in today’s world, everybody’s in a hurry and distracted,” said Woldstad.

The campaign’s goal is to retrofit all 100 school buses in FEC’s service area and, eventually, the state’s entire fleet. State officials and other community groups have signed on, as well.

“It doesn’t matter if you have ‘hands-free’ or not,” said Woldstad, talking about motorists. “You’re not there to entertain the passengers in the car. You’re not there to communicate with the world. You’re there to drive that car and do it safely.”

Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.