Rules of the Road

‘Stop thinking just about what’s legal and think about the safety of the kids’

Do you know when to stop for a school bus?

Sgt. James Prouty of the Washington State Patrol explains when you must stop for a school bus.
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Sgt. James Prouty of the Washington State Patrol explains when you must stop for a school bus.

Summer in Washington is like a good nap; amazing while it’s happening but never long enough.

One of the first signs that summer is wrapping up? The school buses that are on the roads starting this week.

We’ve covered the topic of school buses before (and you can find those articles at TheWiseDrive.com) so I’m not going to repeat myself here. Instead, let’s hear from an actual school bus driver.

I had the privilege of talking with a local bus driver and asked him about some of the things he sees, both good and not so good, as he’s driving kids to and from school. What follows are some of my questions, followed by a loose paraphrase of his accumulated bus-driving wisdom:

Question: What do you like about driving a school bus?

Answer: It would have to be getting to know great kids and great families. Over the years of driving the same route, you get to know the students on your bus, see them grow up, see them accomplish things in their lives.

0827 School bus
A car slows down as it approaches a stopped school bus near the intersection of Brownsville Drive and Hillsdale Road in Bellingham. School bus drivers see good and bad driving kids to and from school, and they have advice on how to make the roads safer for students as classes are about to start in Whatcom County. Evan Abell eabell@bhamherald.com

Q: What are some driving behaviors that concern you?

A: My experience is that overall, when drivers see a school bus they’re courteous, they leave extra room for us at tight corners and slow down when they see the flashing amber lights, anticipating that we’ll be stopping. But there are a few drivers that will, as soon as the amber lights come on, speed up to try and pass the school bus before the stop sign comes out.

And that stop sign on the side of the bus doesn’t mean stop and then go, despite some drivers treating it that way. Drivers are supposed to stop until the sign is retracted and the red lights have stopped flashing.

Also, we have a big yellow arm that sticks out in front of the school bus. That’s there to make the kids crossing the street walk far enough in front of the bus so that the bus drivers can see them clearly.

Sometimes cars in the oncoming lane will treat the stop sign on the bus as the stop line, forcing kids who cross the street to walk really close to the front of the bus, where the bus driver can’t always see them. Stopping before you get to the bus gives the kids the space they need to cross the street safely.

Bicycles and four-wheelers meet the legal definition of a vehicle and are required to stop, just like a car. (At this point I interrupted him to ask if he was talking about off-road ATVs, and he assured me that, yes, bus drivers sometimes encounter them).

Q: What about maintaining an acceptable level of chaos from the kids on the bus?

A: The reality is, you have a classroom worth of students, often from kindergarten to high school, and you only have a mirror and a microphone as management tools.

Sometimes we need to pull off to the side of the road to take care of an issue on the bus. It could be an “emergency” like a bee on the bus, or it could be disciplinary; getting kids settled down.

Sometimes I wonder, “Did your teachers not give you outside recess today and then load you up on cake and brownies before you got on the bus?”

If a bus is pulled over with the amber lights flashing but no stop sign out, that’s probably what’s happening. Drivers will often wait behind the bus, thinking that they’re required to stop. In this situation, when it’s just the hazard lights blinking, it’s actually OK to pass the school bus.

Q: Many buses are now equipped with cameras. How has that affected the ability to enforce bus passing violations?

A: The cameras have become so good that they can see not only the make and model of the vehicle, but also the license plate and physical details of the driver. That’s made it much easier for the police to enforce violations.

Are there excuses that drivers use when they’re caught for passing a school bus illegally?

Being near the Canadian border, we sometimes have drivers from out of state that try to use the “I’m not from here, I didn’t know” excuse. But our local law enforcement officers are aware that the laws about school buses in British Columbia are nearly identical to the laws in Washington, so that excuse doesn’t really work out.

Q: I also asked a series of questions I’ve received from readers that all had to do with very specific scenarios. Most of them were wondering if they could do a particular driving maneuver around a school bus and ended with a variation of, “Is that legal?” I liked his advice:

A: Stop thinking just about what’s legal and think about the safety of the kids. You might be able to legally take an action, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice.

Instead of doing something because you can, think about if it’s a good idea when there’s the possibility of an excited 6-year-old running home from the bus without paying attention to the world around him.

Whatever situation you’re in when you encounter a school bus, do the thing that’s safe, no matter what the law allows you to do.

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. Ask a question.

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