Tag Archives: school bus

Access bus opts to stop for school bus unnecessarily

The in basket: One day in June before school got out, I was stopped behind a school bus off-loading children on Mile Hill Drive where a center lane divides the two through lanes. I was behind the bus, so was beholden to stop for it. As often happens, there was a line of cars coming in the other direction, also stopped, although state law permits oncoming traffic to proceed when there is a lane, even a left turn lane, between the bus and the oncoming traffic.

At the head of that line was a Kitsap Transit Access bus. It’s very common to see a vehicle stopped unnecessarily in that situation, holding up any one behind it driven by someone who knows that law. But I wondered if Kitsap Transit buses are required, by law or policy, to stop for an oncoming school bus regardless of the exemption allowed everyone else. Kind of like buses being required to stop at railroad tracks where ordinary folks can proceed without stopping.

The out basket: Sanjay Bhatt, public information officer for Kitsap Transit, replied, “According to our training coordinator, state law does indeed contain an exception to the prohibition on drivers passing (an oncoming) stopped school bus unloading children. Drivers on a highway with three or more marked traffic lanes “need not stop” in this scenario. The law does not say drivers “shall not stop.” In other words, drivers have discretion.

“We don’t have a specific rule on this situation in our operator handbook, nor is there one in the state Commercial Driver License Guide. We train operators to put safety first. While we don’t know which ACCESS operator was driving the vehicle you observed, it’s reasonable to assume that either the operator didn’t know the legal exception or the operator knew the legal exception and chose to err on the side of caution based on what was happening out there on the road.

“We expect our operators to use their common sense and operate safely based on current conditions they encounter.”

Again, the rule on stopping for a school bus

The in basket: Carol Haskins of Poulsbo asks “In Washington, are drivers required to stop for a school bus that is stopped on a three-lane road, and the center lane is a two-way turn lane?”

The out basket: Regular readers of the Road Warrior column probably know the answer to this one, as I’ve addressed it several times before.

But maybe today I can educate a few more drivers who stop when they don’t have to. It’s not often a person who knows the law isn’t stuck behind one who doesn’t.

Every car following a bus must stop when the bus has its red lights blinking and side ‘stop’ paddle out, regardless of how many lanes are traveling in that direction. So do all drivers coming in the other direction on a two-lane road.

But as Carol’s question suggests, if there is a lane between your lane and the one the bus is in, even a one- or two-way turn lane, there is no requirement to stop.

If it’s not a law, it’s common practice for school districts to not allow children to be let off a school bus where they’d have to cross three lanes to get to the other shoulder.

About that May 1 survey of school bus violations

The in basket: There was a bit of TV and print publicity in mid-September about  a May 1 survey of school bus drivers around the state as to how many drivers illegally passed their bus with its red lights flashing and its stop paddle out that one day.

Statewide, there were 1,523 violations reported.

I was curious about what our local school districts found, but even more I was fascinated by the 32 instances reported of a bus being passed on the right while it had its paddle out and red lights flashing. That seemed unimaginably reckless. It was one of the main reasons the state school superintendent’s office turned out a news release about the May 1 survey on Sept. 11, Nathan Olson of the SPI’S office told me.

The out basket: That 32 number becomes more believable when one remembers that bicyclists have to abide by the same rules as vehicle drivers, A large number, perhaps all of the 32, were bikes. Bicyclists need to know they are just as subject to a heavy fine as motorized drivers if they are caught passing a stopped school bus with the red lights flashing.

Car drivers do on occasion pull up onto the sidewalk, through a parking space or into a driveway to pass on the right, I learned from transportation officials in Seattle and Puyallup, which reported 16 and 3 of the right-side violations that day.

Whether any of Puyallup’s three on May 1 was a car they didn’t know, but they have had one car passing on the right incident so far this year, they told me.

Ron Lee of North Kitsap schools transportation said they had an incident a couple of years ago in which someone passing a bus on the right clipped the backpack of a student with the vehicle mirror. There were no injuries.

None of the 32 right-side violations reported on May 1 was from Kitsap County.

According to a chart that was part of the news release, there were eight left-side violations in North Kitsap, seven in North Mason and one on Bainbridge Island.

Bremerton and South Kitsap don’t appear on the chart, though the SK transportation office said they reported three. Bremerton said they had none that day.

Central Kitsap didn’t participate in the survey.

I asked about cameras on the sides of the buses to document the violations, authorized by the Legislature last year, and found only one bus in North Mason that has one. It led to a citation issued to a driver on Old Belfair Highway last year.

Otherwise, enforcement relies on the ability of school bus drivers to provide a license number and description of the car and driver, which you can imagine isn’t easy to do, especially  when required to stay where you are.

Presumably, all of the reported May 1 violations were of drivers approaching from the rear of the bus or from the front of the bus on a two-lane road.

It’s not illegal to pass a stopped school bus with its red lights flashing if approaching from the front on a multi-lane road or highway and there is a lane between yours and the one the bus is in.

Stuck behind a school bus on Miller Bay Road

The in basket: Walt Elliott of North Kitsap said in a Jan. 18 e-mail, “Driving down Miller Road, we had a backup behind a school bus of 20 cars that I could count and more that I couldn’t.

“Is there any requirement for vehicles to pull over to let a line of traffic pass as there is on the state highways?”

The out basket: Walt apparently was referring to the law making it illegal to delay more than five cars behind you, which is enforceable on county roads as well as state highways.

It reads, “On a two-lane highway where passing is unsafe because of traffic in the opposite direction or other conditions, a slow moving vehicle, behind which five or more vehicles are formed in a line, shall turn off the roadway wherever sufficient area for a safe turn-out exists, in order to permit the vehicles following to proceed. A slow moving vehicle is one which is proceeding at a rate of speed less than the normal flow of traffic at the particular time and place.” The law doesn’t exempt vehicles traveling the speed limit.

Trooper Russ Winger of the state patrol here said, “I am not aware of an RCW that exempts school buses from the law. However, school buses operating on rural roadways make many stops and starts during morning and afternoon runs.

As the large and awkward buses travel the narrow rural roadways there are not frequent suitable or safe places to pull over and let traffic pass. Backups with that many vehicles (20 or more) most probably occur in relatively slow speed areas with stops fairly close together.

“Most veteran drivers know that if they find themselves behind a school bus full of kids at certain locations and times – well, hurry up and wait, because you drew the short stick that day.”

“I know bus drivers do watch out for this and do pull over when safe to do so, because I’ve seen them do it numerous times. I don’t think the safety of school children should take a back seat to impatient drivers, however. The actual time that it will take to get the kids picked up and dropped off safely during the runs is not really that long.”

Kat Peterson of North Kitsap Schools says the caveat “wherever sufficient area for a safe turn-out exists” serves to exempt their buses.

“Our stipulation for a bus over 26,000 pounds is you have to have a safe place to turn of,” she said.

“If we can’t pull over and get completely off the roadway, it’s not safe,” she said.

She could think of only a couple of places on Miller Bay Road going one way and only one going the other direction wide enough for a bus to get completely out of the road.

X marks the school bus

The in basket: As a South Kitsap school bus turned right while I sat at the Woods Road stop signal on Mile Hill Drive, I noticed a large white X on a black background on its side.

I’d never noticed it before and it seemed vaguely ominous. I subsequently saw other letters of the same kind on other SK buses, and one in Bremerton.

I asked their meaning.

The out basket: Here’s another measure of how far removed from my school days I am at age 68. Jay Rosepepe, transportation director for SK schools, said letters have been on the sides of their buses for about four years, supplementing the numbers that differentiated the buses when I was in school.

They are magnetic and can be moved from bus to bus. It eliminates confusion among the students when a bus has to be pulled out of regular service for maintenance or to carry students out of district, such as for athletics.

Something like it began 15 years ago in the district, when cardboard placards that serve the same purpose were displayed in the bus window or windshield. They got the idea for the magnetized metal ones from Bremerton School District, he said.

They’re used only on the district’s 48 large buses. They already need two letters on about half the buses to avoid duplication, and adding the smaller buses would require three-letter sets. Besides, the close relationship between the drivers and the often-disabled youngsters who ride the small buses reduces possible confusion by itself.

They still use bus numbers, but that’s usually for administrative purposes or in radio communications with the vehicles, he said.

Help! Does anyone remember this?

The in basket: One of the things alarming about reaching the age of 67 is not so much the things I can’t remember but the things I remember clearly that never happened.

Bear with me while I tap your collective memories to check out one such very clear memory.

I am convinced that when I was in grade school at the old East Port Orchard Elementary our ride home on the school bus included a misadventure one afternoon that would make the TV new these days.

In this memory, our bus lost a wheel while westbound on Mullenix Road and ran off the road to the right, where a stand of fairly scrawny alders kept it from rolling over. I don’t think any of us was injured.

In those days, Mullenix didn’t go any farther east than Van Decar Road, from which our bus had just turned to head downhill on Mullenix.

The out basket: My mother has no recollection of this, which would be unusual if it happened. Does anyone in the Kitsap Sun readership or on the Web recall it? Maybe one of my fellow passengers?

It was a little early in my life to have been a vivid dream.

Some highway philosophizing

The in basket: I just came across an e-mail exchange between Jim Mills and myself from way back last fall, and decided it would be worth using as a column.

Jim wrote, “The biggest traffic problem in Kitsap County is just simply poor driving habits.  If we could somehow institute a massive driver re-education program, maybe we could make some progress when it comes to traffic congestion..

“The average driver in western Washington,” Jim asserted, “speeds up for red lights, but slows down for green lights.  They have no idea what turn signals are used for. They will not turn right on a red light unless there’s a sign which says ‘no turn on red’.  Driving at a constant speed must be a lost skill as well.

“They merge onto the freeway at 35 miles an hour,” he said, “then immediately move out to the passing lane where they drive 5 mph under the speed limit.  Is there some unwritten rule which states we must always drive 5 mph under the posted speed limit?  They exit the freeway in the same manner they enter.  They slow down to off-ramp speed a mile short of the desired exit.”

The out basket: My reply:

“Well, Jim, I don’t share your view of the ‘average Western Washington driver.’

“The only place I find drivers doing 5 under too often is on Highway 166 between Port Orchard and Gorst. Many of your complaints result from the first car in a long line doing what you see and everyone else being stuck behind the first driver, for example, not turning on red, driving under the speed limit and merging too slowly on an on-ramp.

“It’s funny you didn’t include drivers who won’t get out of the passing lane, which I see more often than any of your complaints, though I also don’t have much trouble getting around them.

“If I could personally instruct all other drivers,” I said, “I would make sure they know that:

– Stopping at a traffic signal in the right lane traps would-be right turners on red behind them

– Leaving more than three seconds gap between them and the car ahead at a green light can cause the light to change to red right after they get through.

– They don’t have to stop for a school bus heading in the other direction if there is a lane between them.

– Traffic moves faster if they fill both lanes equally where one lane is about to end, rather than moving over early.

– Driving 3-8 miles per hour over the speed limit (depending on the location and definitely not in school zones) reduces conflict on the road.

“But, all in all,” I concluded, “I find driving to be fairly easy around here.”

If you wish to disagree with Jim or me, that’s what the comment function on this blog is for.

A tale of two cities

The out basket: The Road Warrior has been able to help two of my readers who were incorrectly ticketed by city police for infractions where the officer didn’t know the law. 

Both men had read in this column that they could legally do what they did, only to have officers unaware of the applicable law cite them. 

First came Nicholas Sveslosky, who was ticketed last spring by an officer in Lynnwood in Snohomish County for driving past a school bus that was facing in the opposite direction with its sign out and red lights flashing, with a turn lane between his car and the bus. 

Though even the state public instruction office issues literature saying no stop is required in that situation, he not only was stopped and cited, but convicted in municipal court. He e-mailed to ask me what I thought. 

Then Doug Lemon relied on my description of an odd law that permits a left turn against a red light if turning onto a one-way street, providing a full stop is made and no other traffic is imperiled. 

A Port Orchard officer ticketed him for running a red light after he did just that at the Sedgwick Road on-ramp to northbound Highway 16  on Oct. 22. 

Like Nicholas, Doug asked me where he’d gone wrong.

The out basket: I advised Nicholas to appeal to superior court, as the municipal judge’s ruling, that the middle turning lane was not a traffic lane because it is not a regular driving lane where cars move in a single file, was clearly in error.

“The prosecuting attorney for the city called me the week of the case to let me know that I was right, and that they were dropping their case,” Nicholas wrote me on Oct. 3.

‘The judge at the superior court court looked surprised that the city dropped the case,” he said. “Great vindication! I did not pay any of the $400 fine, and I received a full refund of my $240 appeal filing fee.”

It didn’t take Doug nearly as long. Port Orchard Police Commander Geoff Marti, when I asked him about the case, invited Doug to call him, and he personally arranged for dismissal of the ticket. 

Still, Doug said, “I’m not sure if I have the confidence to practice this left turn on red again.” Which may be the sad lesson from these two cases. Even when a person is right and the officer is wrong, it can be quite a hassle and take months to prevail. 

Having a copy in one’s car of RCW 46.61.055, the red light law, and RCW 46.61.370, the school bus law, probably would be a good idea for those willing to do it.

 

School buses and the five-car-delay rule

 

The in basket: I came across a year-old inquiry from Ward Starring of Chico Way recently on the subject of school buses and whether they have to comply with the state law requiring vehicles delaying more than five others on a two-lane highway to pull over and let them pass.

He had been stuck behind Central Kitsap school bus No. 66 on Chico Way on April 30 last year, he wrote at the time, and he could see in his rear-view mirror that he was among at least two dozen drivers crawling behind the bus as it stopped and boarded children.

“That bus never once pulled to the shoulder to let traffic pass,” he said. It traveled all the way to the Newberry/Chico Way intersection, where it waited to turn. 

Previously, he’d often seen buses there pull over to let traffic go past, he said.

“Whether that was just a polite move or required by law, it reduced frustration from drivers who then had to contend with the almost impossible task of merging into traffic at the Newberry Hill/ Chico Way intersection,” he said.

The out basket: School buses are not exempted from that law, which reads “On a two-lane highway where passing is unsafe because of traffic in the opposite direction or other conditions, a slow moving vehicle, behind which five or more vehicles are formed in a line, shall turn off the roadway wherever sufficient area for a safe turn-out exists, in order to permit the vehicles following to proceed.”

It defines a slow vehicle as “one which is proceeding at a rate of speed less than the normal flow of traffic at the particular time and place.” Doing the speed limit isn’t a defense.

It’s a hard law to enforce, though the State Patrol lately has kicked off the vacation season with news releases reminding motorists, presumably motor home drivers mostly, of the law. There also is a discussion of it as regards traffic on newly busy, two-lane Highway 101 on Josh Farley’s Kitsap Crime and Justice blog on this Web site and printed in Tuesday’s Kitsap Sun.

Trooper Krista Hedstrom of the local State Patrol office says, “Although school buses are required by law to pull off and let traffic by, they also need to do so safely, especially considering they are transporting children. Drivers are reminded to please be patient when behind a school bus.  They may not always have a safe location to pull over.”  

The pull-off place must not only be safe, it has to be wide enough for the bus (or motor home or whatever) to get all its wheels outside the edge line. Parking with wheels over the edge line is an infraction, as is traveling slowly partly or fully on the shoulder.

There seem to be lots of places along Chico Way wide enough for a bus to pull over. This long after the fact, it may not be possible to determine who was driving the bus that day, but David Beil of CK schools’ community affairs office said he’ll pass the complaint on to the district’s transportation department.

Why no seat belts on school buses?

 

The in basket: Fred Oliver of Seabeck and Dave Spoelstra of Kingston are curious as to why school buses are exempt from the seat belt law.

Fred put it this way: “Why is that special car seats are required for little kiddies and when they arrive at school age, there are no seat belts in school buses.”

The out basket: I went to Glen Tyrrell, the retired state trooper who is director of transportation in Bainbridge Island schools. He gave me some answers and referred me to Allan Jones, director of pupil transportation in the state school superintendent’s office. 

I expected to be told that the difficulty of unbuckling dozens of children in an emergency that requires haste, and the possible use of the belt as a weapon by bullies played a role, but Glen says that’s old thinking. The prospects that the driver would have to take the time to buckle the students IN was a more persuasive concern, he said.

He said people his age and mine who haven’t been on a school bus for a while probably think those tubular steel seat backs that were excellent in chipping teeth still exist. They don’t, he said. In the 1970s, regulations passed to require higher, padded seat backs. 

“If there is a crash, the dynamics cause the student to go forward to the seat ahead of them, and the seats offer adequate protection,” he said.

Allan told me their is growing support for seat belts in school buses, and some states – New York, New Jersey, Texas, Florida and California – require them.

But underlying all the logistical concerns, he said, is a philosophical one. 

It’s generally accepted that a child riding to school belted into a car is at a greater risky of being hurt in an accident than one riding in a school bus without belts, he said. 

Until recently, shoulder/lap belt designs have cut the capacity of a school bus by a third. There is progress in producing seat belts that can allow students to sit three across, rather than just two. 

But then, cost enters in, he said. Adding belts to a 72-passenger bus can add more than $25,000 to its price. Reduced capacity and higher costs can mean fewer students on buses, for an overall drop in student safety. 

Belts are required on smaller buses, those that carry 10 or fewer students, he said. He knows of no public school district in the state that has taken it upon itself to add belts. 

State Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe of King County has introduced bills to put seat belts on school buses for several years running, but they haven’t passed. This year, she told me, she doesn’t see the kind of momentum nationally that might bode success, so she won’t submit the bill in 2009.