With students returning for a new school year, school buses are again part of the morning and afternoon commutes for most motorists.
But when are you supposed to stop for a school bus that is loading or unloading students, and when is it OK to pass?
School buses that are loading or unloading passengers will have red and yellow lights flashing and a stop arm extended from the side.
South Carolina state law requires any vehicle approaching a stopped school bus from behind to stop, regardless of how many lanes there are on the roadway.
“If you’re behind a bus, you’ve got to stop — no ifs, ands or buts,” said Lt. Tim Ayers of the Rock Hill Police Department.
On a two-lane roadway, traffic approaching the school bus from its front end must stop as well.
On a roadway that has more than two lanes — for example, Celanese Road in Rock Hill — only traffic approaching the bus from behind must stop. Traffic approaching the bus from the opposite direction may continue moving, regardless of whether there is a painted median, a raised median or a grass median.
Ayers says it’s important for drivers to be alert because students, especially younger children, may not be paying attention as they’re getting off the bus.
“They’re not looking at traffic or anything else,” he said. “They’re going to run out, they’re going to run around the arm on the front. They’re going to be looking to bolt because they think that’s a safe zone.”
Even if the stop arm is retracted, Ayers says, if the lights are still flashing, the bus is still operating in stop mode.
“You cannot pass until the bus starts moving,” he said. “Just because they drop the stop sign in doesn’t mean you can hammer down and go past the bus.”
Disregarding the flashing lights or stop sign on a school bus can be deadly, but even if there is no collision, not stopping for a school bus can put the brakes on the violator’s driving privileges.
Passing a stopped bus illegally is a six-point offense, Ayers said, and with court costs the fine can come out to more than $1,100.
A second violation means the driver’s license is suspended because it has 12 points on it, Ayers said.
‘A daily occurrence’
Some school districts are taking their own steps to deter and catch drivers who pass school buses illegally. Fort Mill School District last year purchased five high-definition cameras that can be affixed to the sides of school buses, according to Marc Vigeant, transportation supervisor for the school district. The motion-activated cameras are triggered when the bus stops and the driver extends the stop arm, and they begin recording if a car approaches the bus while the arm is extended.
Fort Mill has 82 routes, according to Vigeant. While the district has only five cameras, each bus is equipped with the brackets needed to place the camera on the side.
“If we’ve got a bus that has a bunch (of violations), the driver will tell us and we’ll put the camera on that bus and see if we can catch somebody,” Vigeant said.
If the cameras catch someone passing a bus illegally, the footage is turned over to law enforcement, Vigeant said.
However, prosecuting the violators is difficult because the cameras need to get a clear enough shot of the driver’s face.
“It’s difficult to prosecute somebody you can’t see, and they can’t give a ticket to a car,” Vigeant said. “There’s a lot of effort on the police side to take it to prosecution. They want to make sure they have solid evidence.”
Other factors such as weather and daylight can obstruct the image of the driver’s face. Vigeant said there was an effort underway in the General Assembly to make changes to the law that would make it easier to prosecute violators, but that effort was shelved by lawmakers.
Just because they’re not being prosecuted, he says, doesn’t mean the offense is not happening.
“It’s a daily occurrence,” he said. “It’s a daily occurrence throughout the state, throughout the country. People are spending too much time on their phones and not paying attention.”
‘Putting everybody in jeopardy’
The S.C. Department of Education’s Office of Transportation took a single-day survey of bus drivers statewide on April 6. According to those results, which were provided to The Herald, 549 motorists illegally passed school buses around the state on April 6.
Fort Mill bus drivers reported 19 motorists passing buses illegally on the same day, while Rock Hill School District bus drivers reported 59 violations, according to the state numbers.
Vigeant said there was an accident in Fort Mill during the first week of school. A driver approaching a stopped bus slammed on brakes at the last second.
“The second car didn’t have time and smacked right into him,” Vigeant said.
Ayers says the Rock Hill police traffic unit increases its presence in school zones during the first weeks of a new school year.
“There are so many new people going to this school or that school that don’t know the traffic patterns,” he said. “If you’ve got somebody speeding through, they’re causing extra accidents and putting everybody in jeopardy.”
One instance in which it’s OK to pass a stopped school bus is at railroad crossings, Ayers said. Bus drivers are required by law to stop at railroad crossings, but other motorists may pass the bus as long as the road is more than two lanes.