GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Do you know what to do when driving behind a school bus? If the answer is no, you’re not alone.
After a father concerned about his son’s safety contacted Target 8, we uncovered that many West Michigan drivers aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do when driving behind a school bus.
Nearly 80,000 drivers nationwide illegally pass stopped school buses every day, according to a survey of bus drivers conducted by the National Association for Pupil Transportation. That same study found hundreds of those incidents happen right here in Michigan.
Curious about how well drivers know the rules regarding buses, Target 8 went to Forest Hills Foods to test the knowledge of five randomly selected people.
Every person surveyed knew that when the stop sign arm on a school bus is deployed, drivers in all directions are supposed to stop.
But when it came to how to treat yellow lights flashing on a bus, the answers were mixed.
“I slow down and wait to see if the little stop thingy is going to come out and then if it doesn’t, I proceed but just carefully,” said Georgia Everse.
“I imagine we learned that somewhere in driver’s training, but that was a long time ago for me.” -Georgia Everse
“I always stop unless the driver passes me. I’m not taking any chances,” Melissa Roersma said.
“Be ready to stop. That means they’re slowing down so you need to be ready for that red blinking light and stop,” Christie Huyer said.
The answer depends on which lights are flashing yellow. When the lights in the middle of the back of the bus begin to flash yellow, drivers should cautiously travel past the bus. When lights on the top of the bus are flashing yellow, the bus is slowing down and preparing to stop.
“You know, I didn’t I don’t know about differentiating between the top and bottom, to tell you the truth,’ Everse said.
To clear up the confusion for drivers, state Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, wants a new light panel called a driver alert system installed on the back of every school bus in the state.
The light panel flashes words like “stop” and “caution.”
“We don’t have enough money to advertise every other week, so this way, we put the advertisement on the school bus. The school bus can tell motorists what to do, when to do it and why to do it,” said Mac Dashney, a consultant with the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation. “We want to be able to let motorists know exactly what our intent is.”
Dashney is in charge of crunching the numbers in a pilot study of the new lights. Ten districts across the state are participating in the pilot.
During the first half of a month-long study, bus drivers in participating districts will record how many people pass buses without the additional lights on the back.
In the final two weeks, bus drivers will track how many vehicles pass by buses with the new light system installed.
Data shows nearly half of people who illegally pass school buses do so from the front of the bus; Target 8 asked Dashney how lights that are only on the back of the bus will help those who pass from the front.
“That’s an interesting question that we’re looking at,” Dashney said.
He said most drivers who pass from the front of a bus do so in the afternoon.
“[That] tells us that about 80 percent of the people that pass [from] the front follow the bus [while] going to work in the morning. We’re thinking that drivers saw the back of the bus in the morning and that message,” he explained.
Dashney said he anticipates those drivers will remember the bus light messages when they head home after work.
“The more of that that the motoring public sees, they will begin to say, ‘I know what to do around school buses. I know what to look for around school buses. I know they’re going to give me a realistic message about what they want me to do, when they want me to do it and why they want me to do it,'” he added.
One concerned parent told Target 8 he doesn’t understand why big yellow buses already covered with lights need more lights.
He said he’d rather see more consistency when school buses stop.
“There’s no logic in having cars go by at 40 to 50 mph while children are walking,’ Mike Nothnagle said. “Children are unpredictable. They sometimes drop things, sometimes they dash out into the road. Let’s stop the traffic and make it safe. Children’s safety is… paramount.”
“Every single time, regardless of where they are on the road, let’s stop the traffic and make it safe for the kids.” -Mike Nothnagle
Nothnagle’s son’s bus doesn’t extend a stop sign when kids are boarding. It instead pulls off Forest Hills Avenue SE into a right turn lane. The driver for Forest Hills Public Schools doesn’t extend a stop sign, but rather turns on the bus’s lower yellow hazard lights and makes a “hazard stop.”
He said he’s concerned for his son’s safety and would be confused as a driver.
Nothnagle took Target 8 to a problem spot in his neighborhood – the intersection of Forest Hills Avenue SE and Whirlaway Court.
“While we’re standing here, we see three different buses- some put their stop lights on and some don’t. You can see drivers are terribly confused as to what to do,” Nothnagle said. “Some [drivers] stop when the buses stop, some don’t. Weekly, we hear near-accidents, you hear screeching tires. One of these days, they’re going to hit the bus or one of these days they’re going to drive off the road and hit one of these children.”
A hazard stop is not only allowed by Michigan law, experts like Dashney said it’s preferred.
The Michigan Pupil Transportation Act explains it like this:
“If the pupils are not required to cross the roadway and where the road has adequate width for the school bus to be pulled to the far right of or off the roadway or private road allowing traffic to flow and to provide for the safety of pupils being boarded or discharged, the driver shall activate the hazard warning lights before the stop and continue to display the lights until the process of receiving or discharging passengers has been completed if the lawful speed limit is 45 miles per hour or less.”
“One of the things we get from traffic engineers is the safest way to manage traffic is to keep it moving as much as possible,” Dashney explained. “If we put on our overhead flashing lights we’ve made a low risk situation into a high risk situation.”
“If there is no reason for kids to cross the road, there shouldn’t be a reason for a red light stop.” -Mac Dashney
Nothnagle said he thinks his son’s bus stop is high risk right now.
“I’d like to see instead of adding [the driver alert system] to buses, which are already covered with lights, let’s talk about changing the rules that the buses must put the stop lights on whenever they’re loading or discharging students,” Nothnagle said. “Every single time, regardless of where they are on the road, let’s stop the traffic and make it safe for the kids.”