Every state has laws aimed at protecting children who are loading and unloading from school buses. These laws generally prohibit drivers from passing any school bus that is stopped and has its loading and unloading lights or signals activated. Because of the dangers that violations pose to children, the penalties for unlawfully passing a school bus are typically more severe than those imposed for most other traffic tickets. This article outlines some of the basics of state laws and the associated penalties associated with improperly passing a stopped school bus.
When approaching a scheduled stop, school bus drivers will normally activate flashing signal lights approximately 50 feet before the stop. After coming to a complete stop, the driver will typically open the right-side loading door and extend the stop sign located on the back left side of the bus (often as a single mechanism). These indicators (lights and stop signs) are intended to give notice to nearby drivers that children will be loading or unloading and could be crossing the roadway.
Sometimes, children depart from the door, exit to the sidewalk, and go on their way on the same side of the street. In these situations, a driver passing a stopped school bus wouldn't pose much risk to the children. However, other times, children must cross the street in front of the school bus after exiting. When children are crossing, drivers attempting to pass the school bus can present a serious danger. Due to this specific risk, state driving laws impose various restrictions on drivers when approaching a stopped school bus.
Typically, as soon as a school bus activates its indicator lights, all approaching vehicles must come to a complete stop. Motorists are generally required to stop at least ten to 50 feet away from the school bus (depending on state laws). Drivers should remain stopped while the school bus has its lights activated and is stationary. Only after the school bus deactivates its lights and begins moving can traffic resume.
Generally, all cars adjacent or nearby the school bus must stop. Specifically, vehicles that are behind the school bus in the same lane or in the adjacent lane of traffic must come to a complete stop behind the school bus. And oncoming traffic must stop the required distance away from the front of the school bus. Basically, while the school bus has its lights activated, all traffic must come to a standstill to ensure the children are safe.
Many state laws contain a single exception to school bus passing rules. This exception applies only when a four-lane road separates oncoming traffic by a median or barrier. In these situations, vehicles on the other side of the median don't need to stop for an activated school bus but should still use caution.
Like most traffic tickets, school bus citations will usually come from a nearby police officer who observes the violation. However, because of the importance of ensuring the safety of school children, states have devised a number of other enforcement mechanisms for these laws.
Camera enforcement. Some states use cameras to enforce school bus passing laws. Some newer school buses are equipped with surveillance cameras both inside and out. When a violation is caught on camera, the footage can be sent to the police, who can then mail a ticket to the offending vehicle's registered owner.
Bus driver reports. A few states, like Connecticut, allow bus drivers to submit reports related to passing violations. Upon receiving a written report with the license plate number and vehicle description from the bus driver, the police can send a written warning or ticket to the registered owner.
Pedestrian witnesses. Although it's not very common, courts have held that any pedestrian or parent can testify and provide evidence that a driver unlawfully passed a school bus.
Depending on the circumstances, illegally passing a school bus can result in jail time, large fines, and license suspension. For example, unlawfully passing a school bus in Mississippi is a misdemeanor and carries $350 to $750 in fines and up to one year in jail. While specific penalties differ from state to state, most states severely penalize offenders, especially for repeat violations and violations involving deaths or injuries.