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Orlando Sentinel: Deaths Show Need for Better Bus Safety

The following column was written by Scott Maxwell and published in the Orlando Sentinel. It highlights the importance of bus safety and getting legislation passed to prevent deaths. 

By Scott Maxwell January 6, 2016

It was a June afternoon in 2010   — the last week of school — when 12-year-old Gabby Mair stepped off her school bus for the very last time. A car struck the DeBary middle-schooler as her bus pulled away, fatally wounding the little girl who loved soccer, softball and simply being outside. Gabby’s father, Don, still remembers getting the phone call. He saw the call was from his daughter, so he answered the way he always did: “Hey, Baby.” Only it wasn’t his baby. It was a witness who had found the phone on the street, screaming that Don needed to get to the hospital. By the next day, Don Mair’s daughter was dead, and his crusade to improve bus-stop safety was born.

Don’s message is simple: There are things Florida can do   — things other states already do   — to improve safety. They include stiffer penalties for passing stopped buses, cameras on buses to catch the offenders and better enforced guidelines about where bus stops are allowed. Yet five years later, very little has changed. So Mair — a grieving, driven father — has decided that, if legislators won’t help him, he will run for the Legislature himself. He filed to run against an incumbent who, Mair says, promised to help when media was focused on his daughter’s death, but who turned unresponsive after getting elected. More on that in a moment — and another local legislator who is trying to help Mair. But first, consider the scope of the problem. 

Every day in Florida, thousands of cars blast past stopped school buses in violation of state law. Rarely are they ticketed.   Florida school districts counted 9,377 illegal passings … in a single day — more than 1,600 in Orange County alone.   You’ve probably seen them as well, drivers who are texting, talking or simply oblivious — sometimes in pre-dawn darkness. Without law-enforcement alongside every bus, the odds of catching perpetrators is slim. That’s why many states have authorized cameras on the sides of buses that start recording whenever a stop-arm is deployed. School-bus cameras are now running in more than a dozen states, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Many states have stiffened the penalties as well. 

Florida tried to take a step in that direction last year. After hearing Mair’s plea, state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, filed a bill to allow fines up to $500 and up to 90 days in jail for violators — equivalent to a reckless driving charge. The bill enjoyed bipartisan support but fell victim to last year’s legislative dysfunction when the House quit working before the session was over. Simmons said he’s ready to file again. But this year, no House sponsors have joined him. Mair says legislators told them they simply have other priorities, like gun bills, casino legislation and industry-backed bills. So Mair has decided to run for the state House himself, challenging Volusia County Republican David Santiago, whom Mair said has been unresponsive. 

“After Gabby died, Santiago looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘I’ll do everything I can to get Gabby’s Law passed,’ ”Mair said. “Then he got elected, and I never heard from him again.”   Santiago says that’s not accurate. Asked what part of it was inaccurate, Santiago said: “I don’t want to get into it tit for tat. But that’s not accurate.” Santiago said he still believes more safety measures are needed, but that controversy over red-light cameras “has overshadowed any real dialogue on bus safety.” So most everyone agrees change is needed. Yet it doesn’t happen. 

I’m not sure whether Mair — an unaffiliated independent challenging an embedded Republican incumbent — stands much of a chance. He lacks the wide smile and glad-handing prowess many politicians have. Instead, he’s a whirling dervish of transportation stats, car counts, hill grades and signal timing. He admits he’s angry. And he doesn’t know that cameras would have saved his daughter’s life. The bus, after all, was pulling away when she was hit. And no one was charged in the accident. But he does believe what other states believe — that stiffer penalties, better regulations and cameras to catch the offenders will save the lives of other children. He may be running on this one issue, but I’ve seen many politicians run on a lot less.

See the original column, here.

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