N. Peach Ave., Highway 97 See High Rate of Bus Passings
Marshfield, WI (OnFocus) When a school bus turns on its red flashing lights, that’s a signal for drivers to stop and wait, as required by state law.
Despite this, Marshfield Bus Service has already reported 15 illegal passings of its 34 school buses to law enforcement this school year — and that number doesn’t include the drivers that pass on amber (yellow) lights or whose license plates weren’t able to be captured.
State law requires drivers in both directions to stop at least 20 feet away from a school bus with red flashing lights, even if a stop arm is not extended. Flashing yellow lights are used to signal to drivers that the bus will be stopping soon. In this instance, the best practice for drivers is to prepare to stop as well, just like at a traffic intersection.
But often, drivers speed up instead.
“They see the yellow lights, they know what’s coming, and they can’t wait that extra minute,” said Duane Nothnagel, Director of Safety and Training, Marshfield Bus Service.
Despite efforts at reminding drivers of the traffic laws, illegal bus passings are a problem that appear to be only getting worse. In the 2018-19 school year, the bus company reported 57 instances to law enforcement. Eighteen of those resulted in a citation.
The problem occurs nationwide. An annual survey of 108,623 bus drivers in 38 states, plus the District of Columbia, reported 83,944 illegal bus passings on a single day during the 2018-19 school year, according to the National Association of State Directors and Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS).
In September, the Marshfield Bus Service reported a vehicle that passed on the right side a school bus on Highway 97 while the bus door was still open. The driver then stopped briefly in front of the bus — long enough for the bus driver to get the license plate — before signalling to merge back into traffic. The Marathon County Sheriff’s Department tracked down and fined a Milwaukee driver.
In that instance, the boarding student could potentially have been struck if the vehicle had driven by just a few seconds earlier, Nothnagel said.
Right-side bus passings are rare, with most occurring on the left side and on roads with busier traffic. Based on observations from the bus drivers, passing drivers appear distracted.
“A lot of them are looking down,” said Nothnagel. “There’s an assumption that it’s cell phone usage.”
The Marshfield Bus Company has cameras mounted on the windshield of each bus which continuously record front and back whenever the bus is in operation. Besides acting as an incident recorder to protect the company, the cameras have the added benefit of capturing the make and model of a passing vehicle, although they are not able to record the license plate number.
The footage of a passing vehicle is turned over to law enforcement along with the license plate number, which the bus driver speaks aloud for the recording. The two pieces of evidence can be cross-referenced to see if the license plate number is match to the vehicle seen on the footage. Video is also helpful in determining the severity of the incident.
After the evidence is turned over, it’s at the discretion of the investigating law enforcement officer whether to issue a citation or warning. Four of the 15 bus passings this year have resulted in a citation so far.
“You might have some officers who just have a zero tolerance for that and will write anyone a citation,” said Police Chief Rick Gramza. “If the officer felt they had enough time to come to a safe stop and they didn’t, usually a citation is issued.”
The fine for a school bus passing in Marshfield is $250 and 4 points off a driver’s license. For county/state patrol, the fine jumps to $326.50.
The owner of the passing vehicle can be held liable for the incident if the operator cannot be determined. “It’s still my responsibility when I give away my vehicle to make sure that people are going to be abiding by the laws,” said Gramza.
If the operator admits to the violation, or if the vehicle was stolen, was being used during a trial period from a dealer, or was on lease and the driver is identified, the owner will not be cited.
In Marshfield, certain streets see a higher number of bus passings than others. About half of the 15 incidents turned over to law enforcement occurred on N. Peach Ave. in Marshfield between Grant Street and Upham Street. Another problem area is Highway 97 and Cayman Ave., which is also where the right-side passing occurred this year.
Due to high speeds and sometimes low-light conditions, bus drivers may be unable to record the license plate number, which means there’s little that can be done to hold a passer accountable. As a backup, some of the bus drivers have appointed willing students to keep an eye out and help capture those license plates.
“Bus drivers have a hard enough time I think keeping peace on the bus sometimes,” Gramza said. “Having to worry about people not obeying their stop signs and warning lights can cause a lot more stress to an already stressful job.”
He encourages drivers who are frequently held up by school buses to change up their route or else remain patient and wait for the bus.
Ultimately, drivers should be aware of their surroundings and be aware of the traffic laws around school buses, or potentially face worse consequences than a fine.
“The last thing I want to do is watch a video of a child get hit,” said Nothnagel. “I would rather have them take that extra minute and make sure that there’s no kids there, rather than hit a child and have to live with that for the rest of their life.”
From the Wisconsin Department of Transportation:
Per State Statute ( Section 346.48), drivers must stop on the street or highway 20 feet or more from any school bus that has stopped and is flashing red warning lights.
- This applies both to vehicles approaching from the rear and from the opposing lanes.
- All lanes of traffic must stop for the school bus, except in opposing lanes if the highway is divided with a center median.
- No vehicle may proceed until the bus resumes motion and has turned off the red warning lights.
- The stop arm on the bus is an added communication to other drivers, but the lack of an extended stop arm is not reason to pass a bus whose red lights are flashing.
In some urban areas buses will signal with yellow lights, or use red lights only in some parts of town. Motorists should observe school buses carefully for either the “pass cautiously” yellow light signal or the required full stop when a bus is flashing red lights.
A vehicle owner can be cited when the driver of a car passes a school bus illegally. A law enforcement officer need not witness this violation if the school bus driver reports it to the law enforcement agency within 24 hours. Fines can be quite high for illegally passing a school bus, but the risk of hitting a child is even higher.