An estimated 43 million drivers in the United States will illegally pass stopped school buses this year, according to the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. In fact, the association's latest survey during the 2022-2023 school year reported that nearly 62,500 vehicles illegally passed stopped school buses during a single measurement day.
A new Springfield-based business, Bus Gates, aims to dramatically reduce those numbers and save children's lives in the process. Bus Gates has teamed up with Springfield School District 186 to place its unique, patented product on a number of First Student buses currently operating in the district.
Bus Gates began as an idea by inventor and company partner Dan Thompson, who noticed more and more drivers had been ignoring the school bus stop signs that are deployed when buses come to a stop to load or unload students. Thompson envisioned a longer, red-and-white arm with flashing LED lights that could be attached to existing school buses, something that would dramatically extend the physical and visual impact of the buses' stop signs and be hard for drivers to ignore.
Thompson approached his friend Jeff Stauffer, who had been in the Springfield-area billboard business for many years, and asked Stauffer to help him form a company to manufacture and sell the bus safety devices.
"There's nothing like it out there, and we have filed domestic patents plus a cooperative treaty agreement that protects our product worldwide," Stauffer said. "We've been working on it for about three-and-a-half years.
"This is very unique to the industry, and it's a product that is going to save kids. We've piloted this program around the United States and we've had an unbelievable 85-90% success rate," Stauffer said. "Bus drivers that we don't even know are telling us this product is unbelievable."
The Bus Gates products are manufactured on-site by Henson Robinson Company in Springfield. Once they are made, Bus Gates ships the extension arms to school districts across the country.
The four Bus Gates partners, Dan Thompson, Jeff Stauffer, Dave Thompson and Trevor Clatfelter, initially wanted to market their product directly to Illinois schools, but that required a change in the state law that governs what can be placed on school buses. Fortunately, Clatfelter is a registered Illinois lobbyist, and he knew exactly what needed to be done.
"Whenever I show this to somebody, they're always like, 'Why has nobody thought of that yet?'" Clatfelter said. "We go to these trade shows and we have bus drivers that want us to put spikes on the end of the arm because they are so frustrated by the number of drivers that totally disregard the stop sign."
Clatfelter worked with former Illinois state Rep. Mike Murphy and Sen. Chapin Rose to get a bill passed two years ago that would allow Bus Gates' product to be deployed on Illinois school buses. However, the bill was amended and the product rollout was reduced to a pilot program; the expected rules to implement the program never came.
Clatfelter tried again during the latest session of the Illinois General Assembly and had much better luck. A bill co-sponsored by Springfield state senator Doris Turner and State Rep. Janet Yang Rohr, a former Naperville School Board member, passed unanimously in both chambers after it was amended to make the new extended-arm technology permissible, rather than mandated, for the state's school districts. The bill was signed by Gov. JB Pritzker on July 28.
"There is no greater priority we as leaders can have than safety for our children, and that includes giving school districts the ability to make the commute to and from school safer," Senator Turner said. "I'm glad this legislation will make a difference right here at home."
The Bus Gates arms have already been installed on 20 First Student buses operating in District 186 thanks to a $10,000 donation from Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 477, the union that represents First Student drivers.
"The future of this community is our youth, and what an honor it is to be a part of securing a safe future for those children," said Brad Schaive, LIUNA Local 477 business manager. "It is imperative that we do every single thing we can to provide for the safety of our children who are going to school. This shows what a true partnership can do, and it's one small step. The next step is to get these on the rest of these buses in the entire fleet so every child in this city has a safe trip to and from school."
District 186 Transportation Director Steve Miller said it's about time that a company like Bus Gates was formed and took the initiative to get state law amended.
"Traffic warning systems on school buses have remained largely unchanged over the last three decades," Miller said. "Our No. 1 goal is to get our students to school and back home as quickly and safely as possible, and we are confident that Bus Gates' stop arms can provide another level of safety for our students and peace of mind for our families."
District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill was "excited to work with First Student to deploy this new technology, and thanks to Senator Doris Turner for her leadership and Laborers' International Union for the financial support to make this possible," Gill said.
Bus Gates is the only company in the world manufacturing these special bus safety devices, and its owners proudly talk about their product whenever given the chance. On one such occasion, Clatfelter met a Sherman resident whose story brought home the entire motivation behind forming Bus Gates.
"This gentleman had a heart transplant when he was 7 years old, and when I showed him a mockup of the invention, he said, 'That's how I got my heart,'" Clatfelter said. "When he was a kid and needed a heart transplant, the heart he received was from a little girl who died when she was hit at a bus stop."
"That story affects me to this day and truly reminds me why we do this," Clatfelter said. "We will never know how many childrens' lives this device will save, but if we save even one, it was worth it."