LITTLE ROCK – A recent survey of school bus drivers indicates a disturbing increase in the number of motorists who illegally pass stopped school buses while they are loading and unloading students.
The state Education Department conducted a survey of drivers on April 24. A total of 3,258 bus drivers, in 194 school districts, participated. Their responses were “alarming,” in the words of the transportation manager for the state Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation.
Bus drivers reported 857 instances of being passed illegally by a motor vehicle while the bus was stopped and red lights were flashing and a stop sign was extended. That is an alarming increase from last year’s survey, when drivers reported 726 instances of being illegally passed during a stop.
It’s a cause for concern, as the transportation manager said, because even one instance is too many. To have hundreds of instances in a single day creates the potential for tragedy, because every school day in Arkansas, more than 7,000 buses transport about 350,000 students. In the winter months, it can be dark when buses stop to drop off or pick up students.
When a school bus picks up and drops off students, the average time of the stop is only three minutes.
In 2005 the legislature increased the penalties for passing a stopped school bus with its red lights flashing, in response to the death in 2004 of a nine-year-old from Bryant who was struck by a passing car and killed.
Since then, other Arkansas students have died after being struck by passing motorists. In 2007 a 14-year-old girl from Watson Chapel and in 2014 a 12-year-old girl in Pike County were killed by drivers who passed stopped school buses.
The law made it negligent homicide to cause someone’s death while illegally passing a stopped school bus. It also raised the penalties for passing a school bus, even if no injuries or accidents occur. The offense is still a misdemeanor, but the fine went up from a minimum of $35 to a minimum of $250. The maximum fine went up from $500 to $1,000.
The offending driver may also be jailed for up to 90 days.
Isaac’s Law allows the judge to order community service of up to 400 hours, and it mandates that the driver’s license of the offender be suspended. Previously, suspension of the driver’s license was optional, and now it must be suspended for a minimum of 21 days and a maximum of a year.
The law takes into account school bus stops on highways with multiple lanes, divided by a median strip or a grassy parkway. On those highways, drivers going the opposite direction do not have to stop, but they shall proceed with due caution as they approach the school bus.
The definition of a multiple lane highway in Isaac’s Law does not include five-lane highways with a turning lane in the center, therefore motorists going in both directions must stop for school buses that are unloading students and have their flashing red lights on.
The Education Department, police departments and local schools promote school bus safety in August, when the school year begins, in a campaign called “Flashing Red, Kids Ahead.” A reminder is needed as we approach summer vacation, when children can be more impulsive than usual.