When you see red lights on the school bus start flashing in front of you, it always means stop, right?
And when you see yellow hazard lights flashing down low on the school bus in front of you, it always means you can keep going, right?
The simple answers: Red means stop. Yellow means you don’t have to, but be careful.
Confused? Many drivers are, said Fred Doelker, safety and training director for Dean Transportation, which provides bus transportation for all but two of the 20 school districts in the Kent ISD. Explaining what red and yellow school bus lights mean is part of his job.
The key difference is whether those yellow lights are flashing on the top of the bus above the windows, or the hazard lights are flashing below the windows. (See an illustration of the difference)
Thanks to our sponsor, Dean Transportation, for making this story possible.
Bus Lights: The Basics
Some 16,000 school buses in Michigan transport 700,000 students daily. That’s more than 200 million individual student rider trips per school year traveling 175 million miles.
Two easy ways to remember what school bus lights mean:
Source: Darryl Hofstra, Forest Hills School District transportation director
When the big yellow lights next to the red lights on top of the bus are flashing, motorists should prepare to stop. That’s because the red lights will come on soon and the red stop sign will be put out.
Doelker compares it to a car going through an intersection. When you see a yellow traffic light, you know the red light will come on shortly.
When It’s OK to Pass
“The confusion comes in with the yellow hazard-light stop,” Doelker said of the lower yellow lights at the middle of the bus. “Lots of times when drivers see these, they don’t know what to do, but they think they should stop.”
That’s wrong. When these yellow hazard lights are blinking, you can drive around the bus with caution.
Doelker gives another example: You’re driving down the road and meet a bus with red lights and a stop sign displayed, so you stop. You wait until the red lights go off and stop sign is down, and you pass the bus. You drive a ways farther and see another bus with yellow hazard lights on and wonder if you can go around it. Yes, you can — cautiously.
Another “should-I-stay or should-I-go” situation that confuses motorists occurs when buses are traveling multi-lane, divided roads (like the East Beltline), he explained. You stop when you see a bus ahead of you put on its flashing red lights. A car on the opposite side of the divided road drives past the bus, even though the vehicle has its red lights flashing. Then you mutter, “Why does that driver get to go and not me?”
The multi-lane, divided road is what makes the difference in this situation, Doelker said. If there is a median dividing the highway, you don’t have to stop for a bus on the opposite side of the road with red lights on. However, if there is no physical barrier between opposing lanes, red lights mean all drivers must stop.
A Chronic and Dangerous Problem
Darryl Hofstra, Forest Hills Public Schools transportation director, said cars passing by buses illegally is a significant problem in his district. “It’s chronic,” he said, adding that each bus driver probably sees several every day, and most of the time it’s cars approaching from the front.
Hofstra, who gets behind the wheel of a bus when the district is short on drivers, was on the Michigan Association of Pupil Transportation board for 12 years. He still serves on a state school bus safety legislative committee.
In a 2015 survey by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, Michigan bus drivers reported 1,031 illegal passes of the 1,543 buses that participated. That’s more than 10,000 illegal passes in one day, if applied to all stops.
Doelker finds it “frightening” several thousand illegal “pass-bys” can happen in one day. “I don’t know why people go around,” he said. “I don’t know if they don’t know any better, if they don’t care or if they’re distracted.”
His concerns are grounded in long experience. A nearly six-year veteran of Dean Transportation, in March he received the Richard H. Austin Long-Term Traffic Safety Award from the Michigan Governor’s Traffic Safety Advisory Commission. He also worked for 32 years as community safety coordinator with the AAA Auto Club Group.
Doelker put together a proposal for the Michigan Department of Highway Safety Planning earlier this year. It asked for funding to study why drivers are illegally passing school buses during student loading and unloading. However, his proposal was not funded.
Dean Transportation encourages districts to design routes with pickups only on the right side of the road, because they say it’s safer. The state of Michigan requires and provides 24 hours of bus safety training, plus six hours every two years of continuing education.
Students Need to be Taught
Accidents nearly always involve the bus a student rides, not a motorist driving by illegally, Doelker said. “Students do something unexpected — like run to the bus before it is stopped — and the bus driver doesn’t see it.
“We really encourage bus drivers and parents to work together and teach their children to be safe at school bus stops.”
After two students were killed when the car they were driving ran into the back of a Coopersville school bus in 2011, Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, introduced a bill to add more lighting to buses. A pilot study tested in 10 school districts, including three buses in the Forest Hills district, put LED lights with words on the back doors of the bus. “Caution — Stopping” flashed in amber when a bus prepared to stop. “Stopping — Do Not Pass” flashed in red when the bus was stopping.
Hofstra advised motorists to take bus safety seriously and personally.
“Whenever you see a school bus, use extreme caution,” he said. “Think of it as though you were a parent or grandparent and those were your kids in the bus.”
Dean Transportation is a School News Network sponsor. Learn more about Dean Transportation.