The Stopped School Bus Conundrum

What’s so difficult about stopping for a school bus? It’s stopped. Its nifty little stop sign is hung out on its side. Its red lights are flashing. We simply stop and wait for it, right? After all, it’s carrying some of the most important cargo we possess as a society and said cargo isn’t always focusing on us or the traffic. So we stop. Besides, it’s the law, right? Or is it?

Hmmm! Well maybe. Kind of depends on where it’s stopped and which state of the union we may happen to be driving in. Is it safer to stop? Or will stopping immediately disrupt traffic flow and perhaps even get us rear-ended? Quite a bit of Googling has suggested that the Stopped School Bus conundrum may be a bit more vague than it would seem at first blush.

There are really only two reasons we should stop for a school bus. The first one is obvious. We don’t want to risk injuring those little cherubs who may be running to and from it. The second? “It’s the Law” and we don’t want to risk getting a ticket and a fine. For most of us, the first reason is the most important one. For others, it would seem that the second is reason enough. For (hopefully) a small minority of drivers, neither reason seems to matter much if at all.

In most cases, sorting out whether we should stop for this special vehicle is pretty straight forward. We’re bopping along on the same, two or four lane undivided street as is the bus. Suddenly it flashes Orange lights to warn us it is stopping, it slows, then it stops, flashing Red Lights. Whether the bus on our side of the road or on the other facing toward us, we should stop. Cool. How far away from the bus should we stop? Common sense will usually dictate but varying state laws will provide fairly stringent guidelines and state law does vary on the issue. Okay, but what if we’re on a multiple lane, divided highway? Well here again, if the bus is in front of us on our side of the highway, we’re obligated by both law and our own sense or morality to stop for the kiddies. State law seems pretty uniform on this one. If the bus is on the other side of that divided highway, however – it gets more interesting. If the bus is stopped on the opposite side of a divided highway, there really isn’t much risk to its cargo if you pass it on your side, but there may be risk to you if you stop. Other drivers driving with you might not expect you to stop. You will be inhibiting traffic flow (never a good thing), and at the very least, you might be offered some unfriendly hand gestures as other drivers buzz on by you.

In the divided highway scenario, there is much debate as to whether it is safer to stop or go but your State has probably provided guidance for you – and the State’s laws do differ. According to Wikipedia, New York State and Mississippi, definitely require a “stop and wait”, even if the bus buggy is on the other side of the divided highway. A quick peek at the New York State driver’s manual clearly confirms that you must stop. Alabama and West Virginia also require a stop, depending on the type of highway or the width of the divider.

For drivers in the rest of the states, a bus stopped on the opposite side of a divided highway, does not appear to restrict you from passing it. Obviously, you should pass with caution and a quick review of your state’s actual law is most definitely in order to confirm. (Don’t rely on Wikipedia for strict interpretation of State driving laws!)

How far from the bus should you stop? Again, the laws seem to vary from state to state, but somewhere between 20 and 100 feet seems to be the suggested distance. Not too much of a variance there! Here again, common sense and conditions would seem to dictate. Another stopped School Bus scenario can be more vague. The bus is at or near an intersection but it’s not on the street you’re on. It’s on the other, intersecting street, either to your left or your right. Hmmm again.

The first question at the intersection would seem to be “where is the bus”? Is it right at the intersection or further back on that intersecting road? If further back, “how far further back?”

If the bus is stopped right at the intersection, you obviously should not pass it. But what if you’re not actually passing it? Let’s say it’s on your right but you’re making a left turn. Did you actually pass it? Same question if it’s on your left and you make a right. You didn’t actually pass it did you? It appears to be a very grey area but discretion would be the better part of valor here. Few would fault you if you waited for the bus, but you could get nailed if you made the turn. Here again, it would seem that state law and even different judges could view the matter differently. Probably better to wait the minute or two and let the little cherubs do their thing.

Lastly, the lil’ old bus is on that side road but a bit further away from the actual intersection – where you are. How far down from the intersection is it stopped? I really couldn’t find anything which would clearly define how far from the intersection the bus would have to be, before you could legally pass it, but here again, a quick review of state regs would be in order.

Common sense would appear to dictate here also. If you need a pair of binoculars to see the bus, you’re probably good to go. The 100 foot distance might be a guideline here. I would certainly not pass the bus if it were within 100 feet. Over that range? You’re probably at the mercy of the traffic officer and the courts, and “somebody was honking at me” isn’t likely to get it.

As with any driving situation, one could always suggest safety over the law. We’re not suggesting anyone intentionally break driving laws here, but if I’m on a divided highway where traffic is doing sixty plus and obviously not stopping for the bus on the other side, I’m probably not going to risk causing a multiple collision by suddenly slamming on the brakes. On the other hand, if it’s the law in my state and I can safely stop, I’m certainly going to do so – and I’ll probably put on my four way flashers as a warning.

Bottom line? It’s not about the law. It’s about common sense. I’m not going to do anything to risk the future of those little citizens on or around that school bus. I’ll even take the hit to my rear bumper if I have too.

But it is very worthwhile to review local law and develop some guidelines to lean on, when you run in to the “Stopped School Bus” conundrum. When in doubt, stop – and always let common sense prevail. The risk is just too great if you don’t!