When to Stop for a School Bus (Laws, Penalties & Medians Explained)

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We get it.

When school is in session, school buses can be a huge pain on the road. Getting stuck behind one can be slow and frustrating — and we’re not afraid to admit it!

Still, there’s an important reason that you’re never allowed to pass a school bus that’s loading and unloading students.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), approximately half a million buses transport more than 25 million children a day in the United States. For the most part, the process is extremely safe and the number of children injured or killed in school bus related accidents each year is very low.

However, two-thirds of deaths that do occur in school bus related crashes each year are killed outside the bus. This can often be attributed to other vehicles that do not stop appropriately during loading and unloading.

So let’s take a look at when and why you need to stop for a school bus, including special scenarios like medians and divided roads.

In general, you always need to stop for a loading or unloading school bus when you’re behind the bus and traveling in the same direction. If you’re traveling in the opposite direction on a divided road, you may not have to stop — but you’ll want to check your local state laws to know for sure, as definitions of “median” and “divided road” vary drastically!

Let’s take a closer look at school bus laws and the reasons behind them.

Stopping for a School Bus – Basics Explained

Laws regarding stopping for a school bus are unique to each state, but the wording for each one is extremely similar and is accurately characterized by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Essentially, if you’re driving behind a school bus and it stops to load or unload children, you must stop behind it. Yellow flashing lights warn you that the bus is slowing down, and red lights along with a stop-arm indicate that you may not pass.

Here’s the full language:

“It is illegal for you to pass a school bus while the stop-arm is extended, and the red lights are flashing. Yellow flashing lights indicate the bus is preparing to stop to load or unload children. You should slow down and prepare to stop your vehicle. Red flashing lights and an extended stop-arm indicate the bus has stopped and children are getting on or off. You must stop your car and wait until the red lights stop flashing, the extended stop-arm is withdrawn, and the bus begins moving, before you can start driving again.”

What’s the purpose of this rule?

Children are small and often difficult to see, particularly during the hours of bus pick-up, which may be near dawn when there is minimal natural light.

Additionally, bus riders are likely either excited to start their school day or to get home and play and may be impulsive or less aware of their surroundings when getting on or off the bus.

Thus, it is of the utmost importance for the bus driver and other drivers to take extra care and precaution to maintain their safety.

Do You Need to Stop for a School Bus at a Median or Divided Road?

The law for stopping for the school bus as described previously is clear in its application to a 2-lane road with no median or barrier between the two lanes.

Many drivers are confused, however, about what the law is for stopping for a school bus in a scenario of a divided highway or 4-lane road.

There is minor variability in the wording of each state’s laws, but there is consistency in the fact that, in every state, drivers are not required to stop for a school bus on a divided roadway when traveling in the opposite direction.

The exact definition of what a divided highway or roadway is specified in each state’s law.

Some examples include:

Arizona – “A divided roadway is one in which the road is separated by physical barriers such as a fence, curbing or separation of the pavement. Roadway striping by itself does not constitute a physical separation of the roadway.”

Arkansas – “Drivers are not required to stop if the school bus is approaching along an opposite lane of travel separated by a median twenty feet or more in width.”

Florida – “If the highway is divided by a raised barrier or an unpaved median at least five feet wide, you do not have to stop if you are moving in the opposite direction of the bus. Painted lines or pavement markings are not considered barriers. “

Hawaii – “A divided highway is two roadways separated by a strip of land or other space not intended for vehicular travel.”

Maine – “The operator of a vehicle on a way separated by curbing or other physical barrier need not stop on meeting or passing a school bus if traveling in a lane separated by the barrier from the lane in which that operator is traveling.

For drivers who may encounter a divided highway situation frequently, it is prudent to know the specifics of the “stopping for a bus” laws of that state, including how the state defines “barrier or median.”

Penalties for Passing a School Bus

So, it is illegal to pass a stopped school bus in all 50 states in the US.

Yet, even though it is a nationally universal traffic law, it is estimated to be violated over 17 million times per year.

The punishment and consequences for not stopping for a school bus are widely variable.

In South Carolina, a first offense results in a minimum fine of $500- , or 30-day imprisonment, or 10 days of community service.

Conversely, in the state of Wisconsin, the fine can be as low as $30 with a maximum of $300 and there is no possibility of jail time or community service as the law is currently written.

On a first infraction, it is defined as a misdemeanor and a sentence of up to 90 days in jail can be handed down in Minnesota.

Penalties in other states include temporary license suspensions, points on the driving record, and fines up to $10,000.

Passing a school bus may seem like a very minor traffic violation, but it can lead to severe consequences including physical injury to a child, expensive fines, imprisonment, or loss of your license.

Be part of improving the safety of bus riders nationwide and take the extra time and caution to consistently follow school bus traffic laws.

Wrapping Up

It’s extremely important to drive safely around active-duty school buses.

Your best bet is to look up local and state laws so you’re always in the know, but if ever in doubt, the safest thing to do is stop while the bus is loading or unloading, and wait for the stop-arm to go back in before you begin driving again.

Besides the obvious danger, driving recklessly around school buses can carry extremely hefty fines and even prison time. Just don’t do it!

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Hope this helps!