A life 'hangs in the balance'

John Bartling, Converse County School District #1 Transportation Director, holds a photograph of his double first cousin Laurie, on the right, who was hit by a car and killed while crossing the street to get on the bus in 1975.

Laurie Bartling, 14, was not feeling very well on the morning of Dec. 7, 1975. Her mother encouraged her to consider staying home from school, but Laurie decided to tough it out and go anyway.

She was a freshman at Sidney High School in Sidney, Nebraska.

Her school bus arrived, and as she crossed the street to get on, a driver on the street struck Laurie. He did not stop for the bus.

Laurie died two days later.

“It’s hard to talk about,” Douglas schools Transportation Director John Bartling said, who was Laurie’s double first cousin. The two of them were very close.

“I don’t know if the pain ever eases,” he said.

That pain, however, may also have a positive side, as it appears to be fueling a passion in Bartling, 45 years later, to ensure that today’s children are safe and do not get hurt traveling to and from school.

Unfortunately, many motorists still do not stop when the stop signs swing out on school buses. And as National School Bus Safety Week approaches on Oct. 19-23, Bartling and other transportation officials throughout Converse County are calling attention to what they consider to be a continual problem: drivers and motorists running the stop signs installed on the sides of school buses.

“It’s a problem here,” Glenrock School District Transportation Secretary Patricia Rich said last week. “Just this morning, it happened in front of the middle school.”

In Glenrock, drivers run the stop signs an average of two to three times per week, Rich said, either in front of the schools or on other roads like along Route 95.

Commonly, she said, it is actually the parents who run the stop signs, who are in a hurry to either drop their kids off at school or pick them up.

It tends to happen the most during the beginning of the school year, when drivers are not used to stopping for the buses, she said, or in the spring, after the roads have been cleared of snow and people are driving faster.

“It’s worth stopping for a few seconds or a minute, when a kid’s life hangs in the balance,” she stressed.

It even happened to Rich last year one time when she was driving a bus. A car came around from behind the bus and drove right past it even as the stop sign was out.

“I honked the horn for the kid not to move, and the car just kept going,” she said.

In Douglas, officials receive reports of drivers running the signs, on average, several times per month or more, Transportation Secretary Kathleen Larsen said.

For the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years – the two most recent years for which full data is available – officials prosecuted practically the same number of stop sign violators, 33 and 32, respectively.

The incidences are not limited to a particular street or area or even morning or afternoon.

“It’s everywhere,” Larsen lamented.

“The signs are there for a reason,” she said. “Drivers may not see children walking around the bus.”

As of Sept. 6, Douglas Police Department officers had written four citations for violations in the first 10 days of classes, according to Chief Todd Byerly.

Technology, legislation and steep fines have sought to mitigate the problem. In 2014, Wyoming became the first state to require that all public school buses have cameras, beginning with the 2016-17 school year.

Bartling’s passion helped to enact those changes, after he demonstrated an early camera setup he devised himself to then-Wyoming State Sen. Jim Anderson of Glenrock.

The cameras help officials and the police identify the motorists who run the signs. The fine for not stopping is $450.

Officials hope that greater awareness of the human costs of not stopping will lead to improved obedience, even if the costly fine doesn’t.

“If we could keep one death from happening,” Bartling said, “it’s worth the money spent.”

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