GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. (WOOD) — It’s an issue that’s more common than you probably realize, and it comes with a hefty punishment. New laws are making it easier to hold drivers accountable when they risk the safety of kids on a school bus.

“Historically, we would get complaints from school districts to say we have violators, even repeat violators at the same stop, but we would have had to be there to catch them in the act,” said Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young. 

According to the Michigan State Police Criminal Justice Information Center, in 2019, there were nearly 1,200 school bus-related crashes in Michigan.

In May 2019, a study conducted by 1,373 school bus drivers in Michigan showed that more than 500 drivers passed a bus illegally in a single day.

“It’s our obligation as a community to keep these children safe and to do everything we can to put resources and mechanisms in place to protect their safety,” said LaJoye-Young.

So, why do people not realize they have to stop for the red flashing lights?

“I think a lot of people do realize they’re supposed to stop,” the sheriff said. “But you know, they’re busy, they’re on their way to work, they’re in a hurry, maybe you’re running a few minutes late. There is a whole host of reasons, but I don’t think they realize the significance of how dangerous it is to pass a school bus.”

Prior to Oct. 11, drivers couldn’t be punished for passing a bus unless an officer caught them in the act. Now, thanks to a new law, police can issue citations based on video recordings that are captured by a school bus when an officer isn’t present, and the fines are hefty. 

“It’s a $500 fine in addition to court costs, but probably the most significant is if you are not cautious. If you’re careless around a school bus and you were to injury somebody, those consequences are very serious — a felony, 15 years in some circumstances. So, it’s really, really important that you pay due diligence and follow the traffic laws around school buses,” LaJoye-Young said.

Last week, the Kent County Sheriff’s Office increased patrols to look for motorists illegally passing school buses as part of Operation Safe Stop. They issued six tickets and were able to have even more educational conversations with drivers. 

LaJoye-Young said a lot of people don’t understand which type of roadway requires them to stop for buses. 

Drivers traveling in both directions must come to a complete stop at least 20 feet away from the bus. They shouldn’t resume driving until the bus does or until it turns off its red flashing lights.

Some people believe they don’t need to stop unless the stop sign on the bus is out, but the law requires you to stop when red lights are flashing, regardless of whether or not the stop arm is out.

Even on a four-lane road, drivers in both directions must stop. The only exception is when drivers going in the opposite direction of the school bus are separated by a physical barrier, including a grass median or concrete wall.

So far, the Kent County Sheriff’s Office has not used any video evidence to cite drivers. LaJoye-Young believes as more people become aware of the law, they will start getting more tips which will allow them to follow up with violators and resolve issues quicker when it comes to repeat offenders.