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In Florida, School Bus Crashes are Routine

ORLANDO, Fla.-- It should be an unusual sight for local traffic officers: the mangled steel of a totaled car, the manic flash of ambulance lights -- and the glaring yellow paint of a school bus.

But in Central Florida, law-enforcement officials say, crashes involving school buses are routine.

On a good week we may only work two, but on a bad week we may work four to five, said Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kim Miller.

Most accidents are minor -- especially for children aboard the bus. But several recent fatalities could ensure that Florida holds its record this year for the most bus-related fatalities in the nation, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

It would be the third straight year.

Still, school transportation officials contend the vehicles are the safest on the road. It s often the passengers of other cars or nearby pedestrians who fare worst in crashes involving school buses, experts say.

An Apopka teen died earlier this month when the car he was riding in collided with an Orange County Public Schools bus. Days later, another Orange County bus ran over and killed an Orlando bicyclist. And in October, two Central Florida children lost their lives at or near school-bus stops.

In 2006, Florida school-bus-related fatalities reached their highest level in six years, according to the safety administration s data. Florida probably ranks high because of its massive school districts, lack of public transportation and spread-out cities, said Sheryl Bradley, traffic-safety coordinator for the Orlando Police Department.

The majority of accidents are the fault of other careless drivers on the road, not bus drivers, experts say.

Until recently, James Meade watched big rigs regularly cruise past his Orlando home -- and his two school-age children -- at excessive speeds. The trucks disregard school buses traveling on his road, even passing those with their lights flashing and stop signs extended, he said.

They won t heed that at all -- just blow right by them, Meade said.

A recent crackdown on Young Pine Road has calmed his traffic fears for the moment, but Meade worries drivers could turn reckless again. Bradley said she receives about three complaints a week of Orlando drivers passing stopped buses, grounds for a moving violation.

Orange County school transportation officials said their buses are still remarkably safe, given the amount of time they spend on the road.

The county s fleet drives about 18 million miles a year and averages about seven accidents per million miles, according to internal statistics. The annual cost of bus repairs is unclear, but most of the 27 crashes since August cost less than $500 to repair, said Arby Creach, director of transportation for Orange County Schools.

Creach said a tragedy in Ocoee this month broke a long series of fatality-free years for the county school system s buses.

Given the Orlando traffic and the holiday season and everything combined, we really are fortunate, Creach said.

Buses remain the safest mode of travel for schoolchildren, according to the safety administration, which tracks school-bus crashes nationally.

In Miller s experience, injuries to children aboard buses are rare because of the vehicles spacious, padded seats. The buses also generally sustain little damage in accidents, she said.

The cars they collide with are often totaled, however.

Jahmal Rogers, 19, died Nov. 8 after the Ford Focus he was riding in collided with the back of an Orange County school bus.

The bus was carrying 11 students from Tildenville Elementary School in Winter Garden, three of whom were treated for minor injuries.

It s the most common scenario, Miller said: Because of driver error, a car hits the back of a bus. The result for smaller cars is often devastating, even when crashes occur at low speeds, because of the likelihood of sliding underneath the bus, Bradley said.

On average, 70 percent of those who die in school bus-related crashes are passengers of other cars, according to the safety administration.

Pedestrians -- often children waiting at bus stops -- make up an additional 22 percent.

Bob Eubanks of Leesburg became a champion of school-bus-stop safety after his son Jonathan died in 1995. The 15-year-old was waiting at a bus stop one dark January morning when a driver made a bad left turn and struck him.

Before this happened, we were probably like most people: It can t happen to us, Eubanks said. My message to the whole world is yes, it can, and yes, it does.

The following year, Eubanks started a county safety expo with help from community members. The gathering of public-safety leaders and families, designed to increase awareness about safe practices in all types of situations, is still held every year.

CONTACT: Melissa Patterson can be reached at mpatterson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-418-5924. For complete charts see printed copy.

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