The flashing lights and big red stop signs are designed to warn drivers of school buses stopped to pick up and drop off students.
Drivers, however, don’t always respond to those cautionary indications, as hundreds, if not thousands, of stop-arm violations happen every day across the country, endangering the lives of countless children.
“A bus is pretty much like a cop car or an ambulance, you should be aware of it all the time,” Pequot Lakes High School student Joey Dotty said.
Dotty and some of his friends are learning about school bus laws and their importance after a mistake made by a peer. Thanks to Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project, Brainerd High School student Presley Severson is working to prevent others from making his same mistake.
LARJP is a nonprofit organization aiming to help first-time juvenile offenders understand the effects of their mistakes by connecting them with those victimized and other community members to foster a strong, healthy community.
Severson was referred to LARJP last year after passing a school bus with its stop arm out while on his phone. After learning about Severson’s artistic talent, those involved in his case at LARJP decided to take a different approach to the student’s intervention. Executive Director John McGee said the organization tries to be as creative as possible when repairing the harm done in each situation.
Now, Severson’s hand-drawn posters warning others of the dangers of distracted driving and the laws of school bus stop arms hang on the walls at schools in Brainerd, Pequot Lakes and Crosby-Ironton. He used the posters to take ownership of his mistake as well, as each one reads, “I, Presley, was guilty of passing a stopped school bus with a child outside of the vehicle, with the stop arm deployed.”
“Peer-to-peer it’s pretty powerful, to be telling your friends that ‘I made a mistake, this is what I want you guys to all pay attention to,’” McGee said, noting Severson was penitent about what happened.
As part of his rehabilitation, Severson also spoke to students at the Mille Lacs Driving School about the dangers of distracted driving.
“He was definitely humbled by what he did,” driving school owner Tim Roth said.
The instructors at Mille Lacs Driving School cover school bus safety in a chapter called “Sharing the Road.” Roth said he shows a video to students and believes he covers the topic as thoroughly as possible. The written permit test, he said, includes questions about how far away from a bus to stop and whether a driver needs to stop if they see a bus with the stop arm out on the opposite side of a divided highway.
Minnesota law states motorists must stop at least 20 feet away from a school bus displaying red flashing lights and/or an extended stop arm when approaching from the rear and from the opposite direction on undivided roads. Motorists are not required to stop for a bus on the opposite side of a divided roadway but should remain alert for children, the law states.
Dotty and his friends said they learned not to pass a bus if it’s stopped and to wait for the stop arm to come back in and for the bus to drive away. But they aren’t sure they spent enough classroom time learning about school bus safety.
“I think they could definitely expand more on and put more time and effort into teaching kids about it when they’re taking driver’s ed,” Dotty said, adding he thinks there should be some sort of simplified, easy to remember guidelines for school buses.
McGee said he doesn’t think the laws are clear enough, as drivers can get confused as to whether they can pass a bus if it’s stopped with just its lights flashing and no stop arm out. He mentioned a Pequot Lakes student he worked with recently who passed a bus in that situation — no stop arm but flashing lights, and was convicted of a stop arm violation.
The boys said they likely wouldn’t pass a bus in the situation — just to be safe — but know other drivers might not take the same precautions.
They have, however, learned by the example of others who like Severson have made mistakes around buses and because of distracted driving.
“It’s an eye-opener on what it can do, really, and how you can be on your phone for two seconds, and then you’re going to a restorative justice program and writing signs,” Pequot Lakes student Cole Trottier said, noting his brother once made the same mistake of passing a bus with the stop arm out.
As new drivers, Dotty said he and his friends are likely guilty of using their phones while driving at some point or another.
“From what Presley did, I think it’s a good lesson that even though you think nothing may happen when you’re playing on your phone, things can still happen,” Dotty said.
Stop arm violations across the state
Things do still happen, whether it’s from distracted driving, a misunderstanding of the law or a blatant disregard for the rules of the road.
Minnesota law enforcement officers wrote 1,052 stop arm violation citations in 2018, according to an August 2019 Forum News Service story. And that’s not counting the numerous others who go unpunished due to lack of information to identify drivers.
Each year the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services conducts a single-day stop-arm violation survey, asking states to encourage as many bus drivers as possible to count the number of stop-arm violations they encounter. On April 17, 2019, 2,360 Minnesota bus drivers reported 625 violations throughout the day. The majority of those saw cars passing buses on the left while the lights were on and stop arms were out. Eight of them saw cars passing buses on the right side, likely meaning the shoulder of the road.
More populous states — like California, Texas and Florida — reported more than 5,000 single-day violations each.
Locally, Norbert Klimek, director of transportation for Brainerd Public Schools, estimated the district sees two or three stop-arm violations a week where bus drivers are able to get enough information to call it in. Several more go unreported because bus drivers aren’t always able to get license plate numbers of the cars involved.
“The No. 1 priority, of course, of the (bus) driver is to keep the kids safe,” Klimek said. “So a lot of times they don’t get that tag number, and the police usually need some pretty good identification and license number in order to ever get a conviction or anything.”
Brainerd buses have cameras inside their buses but not dashboard or stop-arm cameras, which can be costly.
Buses in the Crosby-Ironton School District do have that technology, but it’s somewhat outdated and isn’t foolproof. Josh Schiffler, director of Crosby-Ironton Transportation, said the school district averages about 40 stop-arm violations per year but is only able to report about 25.
The decade-old cameras the buses have allow bus drivers to capture the vehicle and the location of the violation, but depending on the time of day the sun might obstruct the license plate number. The placement of the vehicle matters, too, as Schiffler said many drivers who commit stop-arm violations veer toward the shoulder while passing a bus and don’t stay in their traffic lane, meaning the car goes out of the camera’s range. The cameras also only catch cars passing on the left side of the bus.
But again, more up-to-date technology doesn’t come cheap, which means bus drivers need help.
“Public education would be really helpful,” Schiffler said, noting the Minnesota State Patrol has put out public service announcements about school bus safety over the years to try to mitigate the problem, but he doesn’t think there’s enough coverage of school bus safety in drivers education classes.
Klimek said he wished the state would do more billboard campaigns to help with education, as he described stop-arm violations as a huge problem.
The Minnesota School Bus Operator’s Association has tried billboards in the past and is now focusing efforts on social media campaigns, Executive Director Shelly Jonas said. As the way people consume their media constantly changes, Jonas said reaching drivers of all age groups can be challenging, but social media seems to be a good tactic right now.
While it’s a complex issue and education is important, she also believes distracted driving plays a significant role in stop-arm violations.
“There’s so many things going on inside the vehicle that people are just not aware of what’s around them,” she said. “ … Too many times we’ve been hearing from people that said they didn’t see the bus, so that tells me that they’re not focused on the road or anything around them. So that’s scary that people can’t see a yellow 40-foot vehicle.”
Since Minnesota’s hands-free law went into effect in August, Jonas and Schiffler hopes that may help cut down on distracted driving and lead to fewer stop-arm violations caused by drivers on their cellphones.
For any drivers who know school buses are on their daily routes and feel they are slowed down by the yellow vehicles, Jonas suggested adjusting departure time either 5 minutes earlier or later to avoid the buses all together.
As buses run on a set schedule every day — usually between 6-9 a.m. and about 2-6 p.m., Schiffler said drivers who encounter buses on their daily commutes should know what to expect and what their responsibilities are.
McGee harkened back to Dotty’s comment of treating buses as emergency vehicles, telling drivers to be extra cautious, period, when they see a school bus, whether lights are flashing and the stop arm is out or not. He especially wants drivers — particularly teens — to know the magnitude of what could happen when one isn’t fully focused on the road.
LAJRP’s goal, McGee said, is to explore any harm that was or could have been caused by the choice a young person made.
“Presley knows that his life would be changed forever if a kid got hurt,” McGee said. “If he was responsible for a kid getting hurt, I don’t want to say his life would be over, but it certainly would be different.”