It was a quiet, clear, early morning. The sun was just starting to come up, and a boy was waiting patiently on a street corner, looking for the school bus. I approached slowly, in my bus, turning on my yellow lights to warn traffic I was going to stop. The boy, a kindergartner, fidgeted with his backpack as he waited for me to stop and open my door. Ahead of the bus, approaching fast, was a mini-van. I stopped at the corner, opened my door, triggering my red lights and extending my stop sign so the boy could get on the bus. The van kept coming. She had plenty of time to slow down, to stop, but she kept on going. I honked my horn, first a few beeps, then a long, loud blast. She didn’t even look at me as she flew by. Fortunately, not only was I was able to see her license plate number, but the driver of a car waiting behind me also saw what happened and called the police. When I finished my routes, I filled out the police report form for the stop arm violation, thankful that my kindergartner was a door-side pickup. If he had to cross the road, I don’t know what would have happened.
In a report provided by my work, Vision Transportation of Elk River, between September 4, 2007 and June 6, 2008, 89 notices of stop arm violations were sent to law enforcement. Of those, 39 reports were made by school bus drivers. Not a single month of the school year went by without a stop arm violation. June, with only five days of school in it that year, had two.
In school, kids are taught to walk ten steps out in front of a bus and wait for the driver to wave before crossing the street, but I’ve had many kids forget and dart across as soon as they see their parents, friends, or just home. Kids forget, and every time they do, my heart stops until they’re safe on the other side of the road. At that point, all I can do is watch and remind them to wait for me to wave next time.
School buses, by law, follow a specific procedure for all student stops that involve the 8-way light system. The 8-way lights are the four yellow (amber) lights and four red lights at the top of the bus. There are two of each color lights on the front and two of each on the back. When activated, the lights flash in an alternating pattern, warning the other drivers on the road that the bus is stopping, with the yellows, or is stopped, with the reds. According to page 9 of the Minnesota School Bus Driver’s Handbook, “The driver must activate and continuously operate the amber signals for a distance of at least 100 feet before stopping in a speed zone of 35 miles per hour or less and at least 300 feet before stopping in a speed zone of more than 35 miles per hour.” On average, it takes ten seconds to bring my bus to a smooth stop from 30mph for a student pickup or drop off. I turn on my yellow lights just before I begin to apply my brakes, or earlier, depending on the road. Once I’m fully stopped, I can open my door to turn on my red lights and extend my stop arm. From that point, I have little control, outside of well trained kids who wait for me to tell them it’s safe to cross. Once my kids are on my bus, I close my door most of the way to keep out the cold, but keep my red lights on, until everyone is seated.
When I am stopped with my red lights flashing and my stop arm is extended, 2009 Minnesota Statute 169.444 requires “the driver of a vehicle approaching the bus shall stop the vehicle at least 20 feet away from the bus. The vehicle driver shall not allow the vehicle to move until the school bus stop-signal arm is retracted and the red lights are no longer flashing.” A good rule of thumb is to stop for a school bus in the same way that you would stop for a stop sign at a neighborhood intersection. That gives the kids enough room to walk safely in front of the bus and prevents other cars from misunderstanding your stop and passing. Any time a car passes the stop sign on the bus when the red lights are flashing is a stop arm violation and can be reported to the police. Turning away from a stopped bus is allowed, with caution. School buses mean kids, and due caution is a good idea.
This year, I have had and reported two stop arm violations so far and have heard many more called into the bus company base while I was on route. In both of my stop arm violations, I had kids crossing the street.
In the first violation, the driver of the car sped up as soon as s/he saw my red lights turn on. Two boys crossed the street at that stop. In the second, the car had to stop hard and fast to keep from hitting the three girls in the middle of the street, before passing the bus before I had a chance to close my door. In both cases, all the driver of the car had to do was stop and wait for about a minute, less time than s/he would have to wait at most red traffic lights. I was, fortunately, able to write down the license plate numbers, fill out the police form and report what happened. In both of these cases, since kids were out of my bus, the $300 misdemeanor turned into a gross misdemeanor (MN Statute 169.444 Subd. 2b).
These drivers put my kids at risk because they didn’t want to stop. Drivers who don’t pay attention, who somehow don’t see the bus don’t bother me nearly as much as the ones who willfully refuse to wait, who act as if their time is more important than the lives of children who just want to go home, or school.
All they have to do is stop.