Rules of the Road

So you can pass that WTA bus that's at a stop. The question is: should you do it?

Washington state law requires drivers to yield to transit buses that have signaled their intention to enter traffic. If a bus is pulled off the roadway to pick up passengers you can legally pass the bus until it turns on its signal.
Washington state law requires drivers to yield to transit buses that have signaled their intention to enter traffic. If a bus is pulled off the roadway to pick up passengers you can legally pass the bus until it turns on its signal. eabell@bhamherald.com

Question: I was driving on a two-lane road and stopped behind a WTA bus that was at a bus stop waiting for a passenger walking fast to catch the bus. A vehicle came up behind me, waited for about 5 seconds, and then passed my car and the bus using the oncoming traffic lane. Was that legal?

Answer: If that had been a school bus, it clearly would have been illegal, and the lights and signs on the bus would have made that abundantly clear. However, the rules are different for transit buses.

Before we get to transit buses though, here’s a quick review on when you’re required to stop for a school bus. When a school bus has the stop sign out and red lights flashing, drivers are required to stop:

  • On two-lane, undivided roads, in both directions.

  • On roads that are divided to separate the directions of travel, in the direction that the bus is traveling.

  • On roads with three or more lanes, in the direction the bus is traveling, even if the driver is not in the same lane as the bus.

I know that wasn’t part of the original question, but as long as people keep driving around school buses illegally, I’ll keep reminding people about the rules.

Now back to transit buses. The law requires drivers to yield to transit buses that have signaled their intention to enter the traffic flow. If a bus is pulled off the roadway to pick up passengers you can legally pass the bus until it turns on its signal. Note that this law is specific to transit buses. If any other vehicle is on the side of the road wanting to get back into the flow of traffic, the driver is required to yield to vehicles already traveling in the roadway.

From the description in the original question, though, the bus in this situation isn’t off of the roadway, so in order to pass, you’d have to drive in the oncoming lane of traffic. I’ll assume that the road isn’t marked as a no-passing zone and that none of the many limitations to driving to the left of center of the roadway are present: a crest, curve, railroad crossing, bridge, tunnel, viaduct, oncoming cyclist or pedestrian or other visual obstruction or hazard.

If none of those limitations are present, passing the bus becomes a possibility, but not a guarantee. Here’s the thing: the default position of the law is that crossing the centerline is not allowed, but gives some exceptions when passing vehicles traveling in the same direction. You are permitted to cross the centerline to pass a vehicle if the oncoming lane is “clearly visible and is free of oncoming traffic for a sufficient distance ahead to permit such overtaking and passing to be completely made without interfering with the operation of any traffic approaching from the opposite direction or any traffic overtaken.”

That’s a mouthful. Let’s simplify. You can pass if it doesn’t mess with any other vehicles traveling on the road in either direction. If the bus hasn’t signaled to enter traffic and there are no oncoming cars, then what the driver did, as described in the question, is probably legal.

I’ll just point out one additional caution in this scenario. While the law doesn’t explicitly prohibit passing more than one vehicle at a time, it does increase the risk for a couple reasons. First is that it takes longer to pass, so you spend more time in the oncoming lane. The second reason is probably a bigger hazard: if the car in front of you also decides to pass the lead vehicle right after you’ve stepped on the gas to get around them both, you’ll end up in a tangled mess.

There is additional risk to driving in the lane that other drivers don’t expect you in, so whenever you do it use extra caution. One last bit of advice: as a general principle while driving: if it feels like it might be risky, it is. Be kind and drive wise.​

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Online only: Ask a question.

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