With the new school year starting, motorists are sure to begin seeing many more school buses on the road. These cheerful yellow buses are highly effective at transporting children safely, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reporting t
hat schoolchildren are 70 times more likely to make it to school safely in a school bus than in a car.
Still, there are risks, and the biggest risks often involve the motorists who are supposed to be sharing the road with the bus.
Historically, drivers have been quick to agree that motorists should use caution around school buses. As many as 99 percent of survey participants in 1997 ranked passing a school bus illegally—while its lights were flashing and its stop arm was extended—as the most dangerous driving behavior, the NHTSA reported.
For context, drivers reported feeling that running red lights, racing other motorists, and crossing railroad tracks while their red lights were blinking were all less dangerous than passing a school bus illegally.
You might think, given this overwhelming recognition of the danger, that it would be rare for motorists to illegally pass school buses. That assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.
An estimated 15 million illegal passings of school buses occur each school year, according to a letter to Congress sent jointly by the National School Transportation Association, the National Association for Pupil Transportation, and the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.
Statistically, drivers illegally pass school buses in the United States more than 83,000 times every day that school is in session. Each time, these motorists are putting others—especially children—in harm’s way.
Part of the problem is that many drivers honestly aren’t sure what to do in different situations that occur when sharing the road with a school bus.
The first thing drivers need to know about sharing the road with school buses is that every state in the U.S. prohibits motorists from passing a school bus when it is stopped to load or unload children.
Hopefully, you already knew that, when a school bus stops in front of you to pick up children, you can’t just veer around it to pass. However, you might not know what to do if you’re in the other lane or if a bus puts on its yellow—but not red—lights.
On divided roads where a median or another form of physical barrier separates lanes going in opposite directions, whether you have to stop depends on traffic laws specific to that state. In some states, the size of the barrier is a factor, as well. Make sure you are familiar with your state’s laws and, if traveling, with the laws in a different state. If in doubt, err on the side of caution.
State law also determines how close you can legally get to a stopped school bus. While drivers are required to stop at least 10 feet away from a school bus that is loading or unloading children in Pennsylvania, they must be 25 feet away in New Jersey.
Again, make every effort to know what is required of you when sharing the road with school buses in your state and in any state that you’re visiting. If you don’t know what the law says, err on the side of caution and give the bus and the children it is transporting more space.
To make sure you can stop with enough space, you should always allow a greater following distance when you’re driving behind a school bus, the National Safety Council reported.
When a school bus is preparing to stop, it will typically switch on its yellow lights first, then its red lights. While red lights definitively mean “STOP,” yellow lights aren’t a cue to drivers to attempt to pass the bus before its red lights come on.
Generally, when a bus turns on its yellow lights, it is slowing down—and the drivers around it should slow down, too. If a driver is able to stop upon seeing a bus put on its yellow lights, they should do so.
Any driver who attempts to speed past a bus while its yellow lights are on and ends up passing the vehicle after the lights switch to red is breaking the law. Even when no accident occurs, the driver risks fines and potentially jail time. If illegally passing a school bus ends up leading to an injury or, worse, a death, the motorist could end up facing extensive jail time.
Finally, when you’re in the vicinity of a school bus, you need to be on high alert. Children and teens often aren’t as cautious as they should be in traffic.
Younger children may not have learned traffic safety rules yet, and they may not think twice about running into traffic to chase people or toys. Even older kids and teens are commonly distracted, often by mobile phones, and not paying attention to the traffic around them.
To avoid a tragedy, drivers who are stopped in the vicinity of a school bus dropping off children should keep a close eye on the kids even as the bus starts back up again. Anticipate the possibility that a child leaving the bus stop could dart into traffic or run across the street without looking both ways. Accelerate gradually, make eye contact with the pedestrians around you, and be prepared to stop again if needed.
A little bit of patience from nearby drivers goes a long way toward preventing tragic bus accidents by protecting children getting on or off of a school bus.