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PR-B student's close call years ago reiterates need to stop for buses

At the age of 6, Star Pitlick boarded a bus on her way to school for the first time, hardly aware that moments before she almost became a statistic. "I didn't think much about it," she said more than 10 years later. "I didn't realize what had hap...

On her first day of school, Star Pitlick (left) is about to board the school bus as this vehicle passes on the shoulder. Today, Pitlick is a senior at Pine River-Backus and the thought of this day gives her the chills. Submitted photo
On her first day of school, Star Pitlick (left) is about to board the school bus as this vehicle passes on the shoulder. Today, Pitlick is a senior at Pine River-Backus and the thought of this day gives her the chills. Submitted photo

At the age of 6, Star Pitlick boarded a bus on her way to school for the first time, hardly aware that moments before she almost became a statistic.

"I didn't think much about it," she said more than 10 years later. "I didn't realize what had happened."

As she was about to board the bus, a driver decided to ignore the school bus lights and stop sign and pass it. To make matters worse, the driver passed the bus on the shoulder, between Star, her parents and the waiting school bus.

Her father, Wayne Pitlick, captured the moment on videotape.

With help from another school vehicle, the offending vehicle was identified, and charges were brought against the driver the next morning. Wayne said the severity of the incident resulted in a $2,000 fine, suspended driver's license, probation and other punishments.

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A small price to pay, Wayne said, considering what could have happened.

"It's still pretty fresh," Wayne said. "In that instant, our life that we have could have changed and none of it would have happened."

Instead, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, Star returned to Pine River-Backus High School as a senior with plans for the future.

"I want to go into photography," Star said. "Either photography or graphic design. I'm planning on going to Moorhead after CLC (Central Lakes College) for two years."

The event is still a stark example that Pine River-Backus bus drivers and Transportation Director Tom Bristow use. The video is well known among his drivers, and was once contemplated by the State Patrol as an instructional videotape. The footage on the tape combines several serious violations, though unlike some incidents, it did not result in tragedy.

"To pass a bus on the right hand side is against the law," Bristow said. "And when I say passed, they didn't go through there at 30 miles an hour. They blew through at full highway speed between the bus and the parents and the kid. It was a scary thing."

Pequot Lakes has seen similar instances.

"We had one where the child was on the bottom step and the doors were open and someone came from the back side, passing on the right where the doors are," said Pequot Lakes Director of Transportation Randy Maxfield. "Luckily the driver saw it and started closing the doors and hollered at the kid to stop."

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The incident occurred on Highway 371 at the driveway where an "Iron Valley" sign is visible today. Both districts cite Highway 371 as one of the worst routes for bus pickups and dropoffs.

"We try to avoid 371 at any cost," Maxfield said. "People don't stop, period."

"It's our heavily traveled corridors that are the worst," Bristow said. "371, State 64, state 84. For us in our area, those are probably the higher traveled areas. County Road 1 toward Emily. Those are the biggest concerns where most of the stop arm stuff takes place."

For Pequot Lakes, County State Aid Highways 3 and 11 are also areas of note.

Pine River-Backus had eight enforced violations in the 2015-16 school year, but when any one violation could have the potential to be fatal, Bristow said even one is too many, especially considering that some violators were not reported due to lack of identifying features like license plate number. Maxfield remembered approximately six violations.

"It's enough. Any time you have one of them take place where the student is outside the bus and someone goes through not paying attention, that's too much," Bristow said. "Last year was one of our better years. I felt they were down. They were down to eight (with reportable license numbers or vehicle descriptions). We have had twice that many easy."

"It's unacceptable," Maxfield said. "It can't happen. Someone will get killed. If you see the yellow lights, be prepared to stop. Don't try to run them. The red lights are coming if the yellows are on."

In the next year, prosecuting violators could be easier for Pequot Lakes, as Maxfield said buses are now equipped with cameras, with more cameras yet to come.

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Bus drivers all over do their best to signal stops early to prevent stop arm violations.

"If they have their yellow eight ways flashing, it's time for you to slow down," Bristow said. "It's the same as you approaching a yellow light at the stoplight."

There are other tactics designed to prevent tragedy if drivers decide to go around school buses, including keeping the bus doors closed during dropoffs until bus drivers are certain that all traffic has stopped, designing routes so students usually don't have to cross lanes of traffic and having students wait for a signal in the morning before boarding.

Even parents can help.

"For the parents, encourage the children even after the driver motions them to cross, to still look both ways themselves," Maxfield said. "They tend to just dart across and it is better for them to look on their own as well."

None of these suggestions is fool-proof, however.

"If they (students) have to cross the road or a lane of traffic to load or to unload, our procedure is to teach these kids to wait until the driver signals them across. The driver's job is to watch traffic behind and traffic in front," Bristow said. "These kids don't always wait for that driver to signal. The bus stops, puts out a stop arm and they proceed across."

Bristow said the safety of those students is dependent upon drivers outside of the school bus.

"We are talking about the safety of our children," Bristow said. "Once they step outside the bus, the drivers have no control over it. The parents have no control over it even if they are waiting. It's up to drivers on the road. They have to pay attention."

"The (bus) drivers don't get enough credit," Pitlick said. "There is a lot of stress for what they do. We don't realize it on a daily basis. You aren't in that much of a hurry, no matter what is going on."

Thirteen years later, Star Pitlick likely couldn't agree with her father more.

"It gives me chills," Star said. "If I did get hit, I wouldn't be here right now."

On her first day of school, Star Pitlick (left) is about to board the school bus as this vehicle passes on the shoulder. Today, Pitlick is a senior at Pine River-Backus and the thought of this day gives her the chills. Submitted photo
On her first day of school, Star Pitlick (left) is about to board the school bus as this vehicle passes on the shoulder. Today, Pitlick is a senior at Pine River-Backus and the thought of this day gives her the chills. Submitted photo

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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