Rules of the Road

Must you stop for a school bus if you have a green light or are leaving a parking lot?

Schools are increasingly worried about drivers who pass school buses

After 5 children died waiting for a school bus this fall, schools are increasingly concerned about drivers who are driving distracted or passing a stopped school bus. Drivers can be cited if the bus driver gets the offender’s license-plate number.
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After 5 children died waiting for a school bus this fall, schools are increasingly concerned about drivers who are driving distracted or passing a stopped school bus. Drivers can be cited if the bus driver gets the offender’s license-plate number.

Question: I’ve received a few questions about stopping for school buses in various non-traditional scenarios, such as these:

Do I have to stop for a school bus pulling out of a parking lot when I am driving on the road?

What do I do if a school bus puts its stop paddle out at an intersection when I have a green light?

Answer: We’ve covered the basics of when to stop for a school bus in a previous article, so if you’re in need of a refresher you can find it at, with the clever title, “When to Stop for a School Bus.”

But not every scenario matches the basic descriptions found there, so let’s dig into some core principles of school bus laws.

I’ll begin with the first sentence of the law on encountering school buses: “The driver of a vehicle upon overtaking or meeting from either direction any school bus, which has stopped on the roadway for the purpose of receiving or discharging any school children, shall stop the vehicle before reaching such school bus ...” and goes on to say it applies when the red lights are blinking and the stop sign is extended.

That’s the default — you have to stop when a school bus is picking up or dropping off kids.

The next few sentences provide a limited list of scenarios where drivers don’t have to stop, but mostly, if you encounter a school bus loading or unloading kids, you have to stop.

In reference to overtaking or meeting a school bus, the law says it applies in “either direction” which implies two directions, but how should that be interpreted at an intersection, where drivers could approach a bus from multiple directions?

I’m not a legal expert, but I play one on TV (not really), so my approach is to assume the law was intended to be understood with the safest interpretation possible. In this case, I’d be willing to substitute “any” for “either” when I’m at an intersection.

I don’t often see school buses dropping kids of at intersections, but the law doesn’t prohibit bus stops at intersections, and at least one school district in Washington makes it a policy to locate bus stops at corners and intersections when possible.

school bus stopped.JPG
A Blaine student boards a bus on Harborview Road in Birch Bay in December 2016. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Sometimes it makes sense — other drivers are slowing down for the intersection, anyway, and also are less likely to illegally pass the bus, compared to when it stops on a straight stretch of road.

Now let’s imagine that we’re approaching an intersection with a green light, and across from us a school bus activates its stop lights to let out some kids. Can we go on the green light?

Nope. When a bus activates its flashers and stop sign, the law requires drivers to stop. The warning signals on a bus (or a police vehicle, fire truck or ambulance) take precedence over a traffic signal at an intersection.

What if the school bus doesn’t activate its lights until we’re already in the intersection?

I guess we’d have to make a judgment call, but that scenario shouldn’t actually happen. Bus drivers are required to activate their amber signals no less than 100 feet before a bus stop, so if we’re paying attention, we should be able to anticipate the bus and not get halfway into the intersection to begin with.

And do I have to yield to a school bus pulling out of a parking lot if I’m driving on the road?

When a school bus doesn’t have its stop signals activated, we legally treat it like any other vehicle on the road, and the law states that vehicles entering the roadway from a private road, which I think would include a parking lot or driveway, must yield to vehicles already on the roadway.

While that’s the legal requirement, I’d like to go one further and suggest that instead of treating school bus like any other vehicle, we keep in mind that those yellow buses are full of our community’s children and give them an extra serving of caution as we practice every safe driving behavior we know.

And then, let’s extend that same practice to every other vehicle on the road, because those are full of our neighbors, co-workers, friends, family and community.

I’ll admit, being stuck behind a school bus for a while as it drops off kids can get annoying.

But anyone who illegally passes a school bus is trading a short-term personal annoyance for a risk that extends not just to them but to other people on the road.

It’s a selfish move that (and I’m getting on my soapbox here) is not only illegal, but demonstrates the character of the person in the driver’s seat.

As school gets back in session, local law enforcement will be dedicating enforcement to school routes to help reduce that risk.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit