The mother of a young boy killed in a bus collision outside a Woodbury school expressed dismay Tuesday after learning that Washington County engineers had removed warning lights and raised the school-hour speed limit on the stretch where her son was struck in 2005.
“They were put there to help the children,” said Angela Eppler-Scheller of Cottage Grove, whose family lobbied hard for the safety measures after 3-year-old Wyatt died in 2005. “I was in shock and in tears when I was told they had been taken down.”
But county engineers Don Theisen and Joe Gustafson said that few drivers were slowing down on Woodbury Drive next to St. Ambrose Catholic School, despite flashing lights warning of a 35 mile-per-hour speed limit (when school began and ended) on the 55 mph county road.
The engineers, both of whom expressed concern for the family, said that a major road reconstruction project completed late this fall created a safer solution — a left-turn lane to move vehicles off the main road.
“It’s a different road out there than it was before,” said Theisen, the county’s public works director. “To be perfectly candid, that [flashing] sign didn’t change drivers’ behavior. It didn’t slow them down. The data shows that.”
Friday will be the ninth anniversary of the morning that John Scheller dropped off his daughter Sierra at the school’s north entrance on Bailey Avenue, and then drove Wyatt around to the west entrance for day care.
As he was attempting to turn left off Woodbury Drive, a fast-moving school bus rear-ended their van. The nose of the bus slammed through the back seats, killing Wyatt and severely injuring his father, a police officer. No students were aboard the bus, but its driver spent three months in jail.
“It’s your worst nightmare,” said Eppler-Scheller, mother of five other children. “You never think it will happen to your family. It’s devastating. He was a happy boy. He was going to grow up and be a police officer. He just loved life. Every day he had a smile.
“I never imagined that on January 3, 2005, that would be the last day I would see my child.”
Woodbury Drive, also known as County Road 19, underwent a $9.8 million reconstruction in 2013. One of its new features is a roundabout at Bailey Road that county officials envisioned as an efficient way to eliminate long traffic backups at stop signs.
But the Rev. Thomas Walker, St. Ambrose’s pastor, said traffic speeds increased near the school after the roundabout opened. Removal of the safety lights surprised school administrators, he said, who oversee about 600 students in grades K-8.
“We were not told they would be taking them down,” Walker said. “They informed us after the fact that they had no intention of putting them back up. We still feel it’s an unsafe situation.”
Gustafson, the county’s traffic engineer, said the county took Wyatt’s death seriously and extended the road project farther south on Woodbury Drive than originally planned, building turn lanes for parents entering the school parking lot.
He also said that safety lights lose their effectiveness if they’re installed practically everywhere.
“We have a lot of schools that are along county highways, certainly over two dozen, and a majority of those locations have 55 mph limits,” he said. “We understand that every intersection has cars with kids in it. We know every life is precious and we want to make data-driven decisions that are the best outcomes for safety that we can manage.”
Speeds monitored on Woodbury Drive showed vehicles moving substantially faster than the posted 35 mph that was in effect twice a day as school opened and closed, county records show.
Southbound vehicles traveled at an average of 48 mph through the school zone over the six years that speeds were measured.
Theisen said it was an oversight that the yellow pentagon-shaped signs notifying drivers they’re approaching a school were not reinstalled after construction ended, and that those signs would be restored immediately.
He also said that county officials will meet again with St. Ambrose officials to consider other changes, including possibly returning some safety features that the family wanted, or even a new stop light.
“It’s pretty sad when you have your 9-year-old daughter standing in front of county commissioners pleading with them to do something,” Eppler-Scheller recalled of her family’s lobbying after Wyatt’s death, referring to Sierra. “It’s like everyone is just a number, but we’re talking about human beings.”
Theisen said that Eppler-Scheller had called him to express her disappointment, and had left an impression.
“In all of my years doing this job there is no more difficult conversation you can have than with a parent whose child died on our roads,” he said.