In a single day last May, Seattle school-bus drivers reported that 320 vehicles passed them illegally while they were stopped with signs extended and red lights flashing — including 15 motorists who passed on the right side where students get on and off.
The drivers recorded the data for a national one-day survey. Statewide, drivers reported more than 1,500 passing violations, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, which released Washington results on Wednesday.
“A lot of people pass buses illegally because they just don’t know what the rules are,” said Michele Drorbaugh, Seattle Public Schools’ transportation manager.
In Washington, all motorists traveling in the same direction as a school bus must stop when the bus’ stop sign “paddle” is extended and its red lights are flashing. Drivers traveling in the opposite direction must stop on two-lane roads but not if the roadway has three or more lanes, including turn lanes.
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Yellow flashing lights on the front and back indicate a bus is about to stop to load or unload students, so motorists should slow down and be prepared to stop.
Drivers caught illegally passing must pay a $394 citation, according to the Washington State Patrol.
Bus drivers in 110 of Washington’s school districts recorded details about who passed them illegally on May 1. Bellevue drivers reported that 78 vehicles passed them illegally, all on the left side. Kent drivers counted 144 violators, including three who passed on the right.
Seattle bus drivers see more violations in the afternoon than in the morning, Drorbaugh said. Illegal passing often occurs on roads with four or more lanes such as Delridge Way Southwest in West Seattle and Lake City Way Northeast in North Seattle.
But once in a while someone sneaks up the right side of the bus when it’s stopped.
Usually school buses stop alongside a curb to load and unload kids. But sometimes a wide dirt shoulder, a bike lane, a turn lane reserved for public buses or even some empty spaces in a lane where cars usually park can create enough daylight for an impatient motorist to squeeze by on the right side.
“People are in a hurry, and they try to go around,” Drorbaugh said.
The state’s director of student transportation, Allan J. Jones, saw it happen right in front of him when he was driving school buses in Seattle from 1977 to 1991.
One day he was in Highland Park in Southwest Seattle on a narrow road with a sidewalk and a large unimproved shoulder on the right side with grass and gravel where cars parked. He stopped his bus on the pavement and waited for a student to board.
“A kid is coming out of the house and a car comes around the bus on the right side of the bus because there wasn’t room on the left,” Jones said. “The kid wasn’t in any immediate danger because he was just coming out of the house. The only danger was from my blood pressure exploding.”
He said school-bus drivers in Washington are trained to assume that impatient motorists will try to get around their stopped buses and to watch their kids carefully.
“The last fatality of a kid [in Washington] during that loading and unloading process of a school bus was, I think, 1991,” Jones said.
Last spring was the third year for the annual one-day surveys, which are coordinated by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation and reported when school begins to remind drivers to watch out for school buses.
Drorbaugh said the first survey Seattle’s school-bus drivers took in 2012 noted 510 violators on one day, including 11 who passed on the right. She’d like to see those numbers drop further.
“If you see a bus stopped, there’s kids around there. Pay attention,” she said.
John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @jhigginsST