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That stop sign is serious – deadly serious

Once a year in Tennessee the Department of Safety and the Tennessee Highway Patrol participate in an event – usually in the fall – called National School Bus Safety Week.
It is an opportunity to make students, parents and motorists aware of the precious cargo our school buses are carrying, as well as the many pedestrian students we encounter at the beginning of each morning and each afternoon.
While this is an important event, it is appears that having an annual safety event to raise awareness isn’t nearly enough.
Our recent article, “If it says stop, you stop,” brought to light the very serious problem of motorists not stopping for stopped school buses, in the process of loading and unloading children.
Director of Federal Programs John Hutchins is right to be very concerned.
When the Elizabethton Police Department pulls over and issues warnings to 15 to 20 drivers in one week’s time, it’s time to be very concerned.
According to state statistics, Tennessee school buses transport more than 500,000 children.
That’s a half million reasons to be careful.
So what are the rules?
They are there, in our Tennessee Drivers’ Handbook, something most of us haven’t looked at since we passed our first driving test when we turned 16. Apparently, many of us have forgotten, so here’s a quick refresher course:
Meeting A School Bus
• The driver of any vehicle approaching from the front, a school bus or church bus on which the red stop warning signal lights are flashing, should reduce the speed of the vehicle and bring the vehicle to a complete stop while the bus stop signal arm is extended. The vehicle must remain stopped until the stop arm is retracted and the bus resumes motion.
Overtaking A School Bus
• The driver of any vehicle approaching a school bus or church bus from the rear shall not pass the bus when red stop warning signal lights are flashing and must bring the vehicle to a complete stop when the bus is stopped. The vehicle must remain stopped until the stop arm is retracted and the bus resumes motion.
School Bus Warning Lights
• IT IS ILLEGAL IN ALL 50 STATES TO PASS A SCHOOL BUS THAT HAS STOPPED TO LOAD OR UNLOAD STUDENTS.
Never pass on the right side of the bus, as this is where the children enter or exit. This is illegal and can have tragic results. You must stop and you must stop and remain stopped until:
• the bus has started moving, OR
• the driver motions for you to proceed, OR
• the red flashing lights go off and/or the stop arm is pulled back.
When a school bus is stopped at an intersection to load and unload children, drivers from ALL directions are required to stop until the bus resumes motion. When driving on a highway with separate roadways for traffic in opposite directions, divided by median space or barrier not suitable for vehicular traffic, the driver need not stop but should proceed with caution.
Note: A turn lane in the middle of a four-lane highway is NOT considered a barrier, but a fifth lane that is suitable for vehicular traffic, drivers meeting a stopped school bus on this type of road would be required to stop in both directions.
Yellow flashing lights
When the yellow lights on the front and back of the bus are flashing, the bus is preparing to stop to load or unload children. Motorists should slow down and prepare to stop their vehicles.
With all these laws in place, one would think that drivers should have a good understanding of how to proceed in school zones and when encountering a stopped school bus.
However, we were surprised to learn how few citations have been written statewide for illegally passing school buses. According to a news release issued by the Tennessee Highway Patrol in July 2013, 5,247 citations were issued in school zones during the 2012-2013 school year – up from 3,856 citations issued in 2011-12.
Of those citations, 759 were for speeding violations; only two were for passing a stopped school bus.
As more and more motorists appear to fail to exercise safe caution when encountering stopped school buses, we applaud our local law enforcement officers for being diligent in issuing warnings.
If motorists continue to ignore the laws, perhaps officers will need to start issuing actual citations as a stronger and more significant reminder that we can’t be too careful when it comes to the safety of our precious children.