A light bulb went on in the head of school bus driver Chris Haugen last fall when he came across small, flashing strobe lights with a simple clip: Students could wear these in the dark! In northeastern Minnesota, the days are short and the winters long and cold, with frequent snowstorms and fog moving in from Lake Superior.
Many Proctor Public Schools students walk on dark country roads to their bus stops every morning and wait there, mostly invisible. Haugen said this fact has troubled him and his fellow bus drivers in the semi-rural community near Duluth for many years. When he brought his idea to his transportation supervisor, Curt Benassi, he was grateful to gain his support and eventually that of other school administrators.
Benassi told STN that he drove a bus himself for 19 years before going into management. He said the district transports nearly 2,000 students on 19 elementary routes and 16 high school routes, many of them in the early predawn hours. But now students have added protection for less than $2,000.
“I think it’s a great idea. The drivers all just love the flashers because you can see where the kids are standing,” said Benassi. “It not only helps the drivers but it also helps the general public when they’re driving in the early morning. When cruising around, if you see a flashing light, you tend to slow down. It basically helps everybody.”
Proctor Superintendent John Engelking couldn’t agree more. After considering the pros and cons of this innovation, he rubber-stamped the idea and immediately sought out funding.
“The more I thought about it, I just thought safety for kids outweighs any distraction there might be,” he recalled. “We ordered them in green to reflect our school colors (green and white). We handed them out to all of our elementary and middle school kids. It’s available to high school kids at their request.”
Engelking said he originally ordered 1,600 of the strobe lights from Gizmoz Promotional Products in Duluth, and has about 50 left. Recently he shared the idea of students wearing flashers at a meeting of area superintendents, and already two districts — Willow River and Lake Superior school districts — have called to order the lights, which cost a dollar each.
The superintendent is quick to thank the local Irving Community Foundation for being “such a great partner to Proctor schools.” In addition, he received a call from a local businessman who offered to buy 100 batteries to have on hand for any child that needs new batteries for his or her flasher.
“The community has said: What a great idea, thank you!” said Engelking. “Now, when you drive around, you can see distinct green flashing lights on our streets in town and in the country, so it’s nice. It’s successful. Kids like them and parents are so thankful.”
Haugen is humbly grateful his idea was heard and implemented. He discovered the flashing lights during a class on recreation and safety that was part of human resources conference in Duluth last fall. He told STN that when the speaker brought out blinking yellow lights that clip on to backpacks, belt loops, or basically anywhere, he had a definite “aha” moment.
“I’ve been driving for 20 years, and it’s so hard in the morning in the fog and whatnot to see the kids. I thought: What an ideal thing. It blinks so we’re able to see the kids a good mile down the road,” Haugen went on. “Plus, it gives them safety when they cross the road in the dark so other drivers can see them. It makes them much more visible … and maybe it can prevent a tragedy.”
Haugen is no stranger to tragedy. Back in 1972, when he was 12, he lost his 5-year-old brother, who was hit and killed by a car as he crossed the road to retrieve his mitten.
“I know these tragedies can happen to families. It always sticks with me. Kids get tunnel vision, and they just run out in the street, looking at their ball or whatever, not watching where they are going,” he said.
Haugen added that his fellow bus drivers are grateful for the flashing lights because they really cut through the fog and snow to signal that children are present.
“Some of the kids are on Highway 53, which is very busy,” he said. “My hope is that other school districts will get onboard with this great idea, so we can see the kids better. It’s not that expensive and it’s a very positive thing. Parents remind kids to turn on the blinking lights before the bus comes, especially if the weather is bad.”