The rules for the school bus driver are very explicit about when the flashing red lights are to be activated and when they are not to be used. Also explicit is the timing and the distance at which to activate the advance warning yellow flashing lights before activating the red lights.
I came upon a situation recently where a school bus was stopped and no warning lights were flashing except the ordinary four-way flashers used to indicate a break down or a stopped vehicle on a roadway. Traffic in both directions was stopped and beginning to cause a long back up. I was aware that this was not a required stopping situation so I turned on my four-ways and walked toward the bus to see if the driver was having a mechanical problem and met him as he walked toward the rear passenger side of his bus.
He began deploying a ramp to allow his wheel-chair bound passenger to get off the bus. I asked him to confirm that driving past his bus was legal and he confirmed that it was completely legal for cars to pass when discharging a wheel chair passenger from the passenger side on the curb side of the street.
I returned to my car and with a hand signal indicated to the other drivers patiently waiting that it was okay to proceed. Seeing such confusion among so many drivers led me to search the law to see if I could find the specific language to share it with those who find themselves uncertain about when it's legal to pass a stopped bus.
I found it in the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes:
Chapter 33. Rules of the Road in General
Subchapter D. Special Stops RequiredSection 3345, Meeting or overtaking school bus.
subsection, (f.1) Use of school buses for transportation of disabled persons.
— Whenever a school bus is being used upon a highway or trafficway for the transportation of disabled persons exclusively and the school bus is equipped with red signal lights, the driver of the school bus may actuate the signal lights in the same manner as set forth in this section regarding the transportation of school children. The driver of a vehicle approaching the school bus shall have the same duties regarding stopping, passing and overtaking as he does with respect to a school bus carrying school children.
I emphasized the words "may actuate" to show it is one of the few non-mandatory circumstances where it is at the school bus driver's discretion to determine whether safety considerations might demand the use of the signal lights.
The key clues for an upcoming stop are the top yellow lights flashing which must begin no more than 300 feet from a stop and no less than 150 feet from that stop. When the yellow flashing lights come on, be prepared for a stop about to happen. If none of the top lights are flashing, you may pass the bus in either direction, but once the red lights begin flashing there should never be any confusion about stopping. STOP. And when you stop, make sure you are no closer than 10 feet from the bus. After the last exiting student has reached a point of safety, the driver will turn the lights off and retract the semaphore arm and you can then proceed.
If in doubt, STOP. We're talking about our school children's safety. They are our future even if they haven't learned yet how to buckle their belts at their waistline.
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