Hergott: The problem with passing school buses

Paul Hergott questions if B.C. should follow the footsteeps on P.E.I.

Is passing school buses with flashing lights a special P.E.I. problem, or can we learn from their struggles?

They already have the heftiest fines in the country: $1,000.00 minimum and $5,000.00 maximum.

The fine in British Columbia is a “whopping” $368.00. Before an increased in 2016 it was $167.00.

On top of the fine, P.E.I. drivers are hit with 8 demerit points. Getting to 12 demerit points in P.E.I. comes with the consequences of license suspension for three months and the requirement to take a “driver improvement” or “defensive driving” course.

British Columbia drivers are hit with only 3 demerit points. And I just had a gander on-line where an “Intervention Chart” indicates that 9-14 penalty points attracts a “whopping” warning letter.

Do we care about children safety in British Columbia? The good folks in P.E.I. are actively talking about and wrestling with the problem, and they’re 10 steps ahead of us with penalties!

But even with consequences that blow ours out of the water, P.E.I. has not been achieving results.

Within the last month, a standing committee held meetings to sort out this ongoing problem.

And it’s a true puzzle.

Because fines and penalty points shouldn’t even be necessary. What animal would choose to endanger children’s lives by passing a school bus with activated flashing lights?

But children’s safety is clearly an insufficient motivator, so we impose fines and penalties.

Why aren’t the heftiest of fines and penalties working? How wealthy must you be to risk a minimum $1,000.00 fine and getting two-thirds of the way to losing your license for three months?

And it’s a very high risk. There’s a pissed off witness sitting there in the driver’s seat of the school bus!

The committee indicated willingness to consider any options, including strobe lights on the school buses. One member suggested putting a crossing guard on each bus in hot spot areas.

They went with increasing demerits. As of December 8, 2018, even drivers with a clean driving record will face the strict consequences because demerits are increasing from 8 to the 12 necessary to result in license suspension.

Have they finally got it right? Will P.E.I.’s heftiest of penalty mixes finally correct driver behaviour?

I fear that it will not.

What driver is going to come up behind a stopped school bus, with flashing lights, and think: “Hmmm, if it was only a $1,000.00 fine and eight demerit points, I’d risk child safety and pass, but with the extra four points I’m going to choose to stop?”

Those suggesting strobe lights and crossing guards are closer to the answer.

Why do I say that? Graham Miner, director of the Highway Safety Division, pointed to the answer. He reportedly provided crash statistics noting that “…society is facing a new enemy – cellphones and distracted driving. And it’s impacting school buses.” (Dave Stewart, The Guardian).

This might sound crazy, but for the most part I believe that drivers are not making the conscious choice to endanger child safety and risk hefty penalties. They are zoned out. They see, but do not cognitively process the red flashing lights.

Crazy as it may sound, I bet there’s not one flag person who would doubt me. They are continually shaking their signs up and down trying to get drivers’ attention. And they’re standing out on the road with bright colours holding a sign!

It’s just like the offending drivers in 50 per cent of the crash claims I handle (rear-enders), who are so zoned out they fail to notice that traffic ahead of them has come to a stop.

Strobe lights and crossing guards would help. But they would be a band-aid, and a dangerous one at that.

They would do nothing to fix the overall problem of zoned out motorists. And the danger is setting up yet another safety net, leading motorists to feel even more comfortable directing their attention elsewhere.

How do we fix the real problem of zoned out motorists?

Send the strong message that we must zone in!

A message that we have completely failed in sending. And it’s a continuing failure.

Our road safety focus has been “eyes on the road”, when the true challenge is keeping our “brains on the road.”

We have the scientific studies that show that we can be looking out our windshield, eyes on the road, but fail to cognitively process approximately fifty percent of that visual information when our brains our elsewhere (using electronic communication devices). Sound crazy? Here is a link to British Columbia’s 2009 Discussion Paper reviewing the science (Discussion Paper: Addressing the Problem of Distracted Driving and its Impacts to Road Safety).

The important road safety message to keep our “brains on the road” is completely lost when we tell the driving public that it’s perfectly legal and safe to engage in cell phone communications and texting as long as it’s hands free.

It’s not, of course. It’s identically cognitively distracting to chat while physically holding a cell phone as it is hands free.

In P.E.I., in British Columbia, in all of Canada we need to take the bold step of banning all cell phone use while driving. Increasing penalties is bound to continue failing unless we get drivers’ brains firmly on the road. A cell phone ban would send the message that “brain on the road” is what really matters.

We need to send the message that attention behind the wheel is of utmost road safety importance. Send the message that “brain on road” is the key issue.

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