Rules of the Road: How to drive around school buses, school zones


Buses back on roads

Buses are inspected at the Bellingham School District bus barn Friday afternoon, August 22, 2008.


Back to school means drivers must remember to obey laws dealing with school buses and school zones. Over the last few years, the Rules of the Road column has addressed many school-related questions from readers.

As a reminder, the most basic law is on a two-lane road you must stop in both directions for a school bus with its red lights flashing and/or stop sign out. The fine for passing a public school bus with its lights flashing is $394.

Here are some of the previous questions and answers about school-related traffic laws.

Question: What is the law regarding school buses stopped to pick up or discharge passengers on a four-lane (two lanes in each direction) road such as Guide Meridian?

Answer: Vehicles traveling in the opposite direction of the school bus do not need to stop. If you are going in the same direction as the bus, you must stop.

Q: When traveling to work in the morning there are times when a school bus has to stop at almost every house. I am aware of the law regarding not passing a school bus when the lights are flashing red, however is there any law stating that you can't pass it when the lights are not flashing?

A: As long as the roadway is marked to allow passing, it would be legal to pass the school bus if the red lights were not flashing. It may be difficult to perform a safe pass if the bus is stopping that frequently. It might be easier, and safer, to adjust the departure time for work by five minutes to avoid being behind the bus.

Q: When a school bus stops to board or drop off students, is there a lawful distance behind the bus to stop? The closest answer I have so far is to be able to see the rear tires of the bus where they touch the ground.

A: There is no required stopping distance behind a bus that I know of. Your idea of stopping far enough back to be able to see the rear tires is what I use when stopping behind all vehicles. This allows you room in case you have to maneuver around that vehicle or if you are struck from the rear.

Q: When passing through a school zone there are signs that list a decreased speed limit and say when "children are present." Does this statement mean when children are visible? Or does the speed limit decrease apply to the full school day hours regardless of children being visible to drivers?

A: I had to do some looking to find the actual definition of the wording, but here it is (see WAC 468-95-335):

The supplemental or lower panel of a School Speed Limit 20 sign which reads When Children are Present shall indicate to the motorist that the 20 mph school speed limit is in force under any of the following conditions:

1. Schoolchildren are occupying or walking within the marked crosswalk.

2. Schoolchildren are waiting at the curb or on the shoulder of the roadway and are about to cross the roadway by way of the marked crosswalk.

3. Schoolchildren are present or walking along the roadway, either on the adjacent sidewalk or, in the absence of sidewalks, on the shoulder within the posted school speed limit zone extending 300 feet, or other distance established by regulation, in either direction from the marked crosswalk.

Now that we have determined the meaning of these signs, remember that the school zones that have the flashing yellow lights are enforceable when the lights are flashing, whether there are any children in the area or not.


Rules of the Road is an online forum with questions and answers on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. To ask a question, use this form.

David Wright is a retired officer from the Bellingham Police Department who is now on the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force.

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