FORT WALTON BEACH — Every year since the early 2000s, Okaloosa County School District officials have tried to minimize bus stops along U.S. Highway 98.
One of the most dangerous stretches of highway in Florida, school system leaders want to keep students and residents safe.
Today, it has 16 stops between Florosa and Destin, said Jay McInnis who oversees the School District’s transportation department.
“We don’t like to add stops on the highway,” McInnis said. “Where students live in houses right on the highway and there is no alternative way to pull in, we have to do that, unfortunately.”
The subject came up again when Fort Walton Beach resident Katy Krueger sent an email to Superintendent Marcus Chambers and other administrators about the “dangerous” bus stops along U.S. 98.
“Having children stand inches away from a multi-lane highway during rush hour traffic is unsafe,” Krueger wrote. “Not only is it unsafe for the children, but also for the motorists who are driving to work.”
Krueger recommended directing children to a safe bus stop in a nearby neighborhood, have buses make stops after peak rush-hour times or have parents who live on U.S. 98 take their children to school.
“As a community, working together, I feel we can come up with a solution to help make our students and drivers safer,” Krueger wrote. “You are putting the lives of thousands of commuters at risk.”
Chambers thanked Krueger for focusing his attention on the issue and said he had each bus stop along the busy highway reviewed again. However, no additional bus stops have been eliminated.
“I do appreciate your concern for the safety of our students and citizens,” Chambers said.
Despite the fear for safety, McInnis said buses have been involved in three documented accidents since 2017. One bus recently hit a concrete barrier turning out of the Emerald Bay subdivision in Destin. The other two happened in 2017, also in Destin. In one incident, a car pulled out and scraped the side of the bus. In the other, a bus leaving Destin Middle School rear-ended a car in a turn lane.
One year, McInnis said the School District even used shorter buses, which carried up to 25 students, to turn around easier in neighborhoods with dead ends.
“Traffic is bad out there,” he said. “We’re fortunate we don’t have more bus stops than we do.”
The School District has a fleet of 231 buses that carry more than 16,000 students daily and travel 3 million miles per school year. In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that the fatality rate for school buses is 0.2 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, as compared to 1.5 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles for cars.
School Board member Diane Kelley pointed out that nearly $400,000 in improvements earlier this year at Florosa Elementary added turn lanes to U.S. 98, reconfigured the school’s parking lot and made other adjustments. This increased traffic flow by eliminating the need for U-turns that created traffic jams.
“We’re dedicated to doing the best we can,” Kelley said. “In a perfect world, we would have all the money in the world for some perfect solution.”