published Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Chattanooga area drivers regularly ignore law, pass school buses

Students exit Hamilton County school bus 351 at a stop at the intersection of Hwy. 58 and Jewell Road in Chattanooga.
Students exit Hamilton County school bus 351 at a stop at the intersection of Hwy. 58 and Jewell Road in Chattanooga.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
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PASSING THE BUS

Here are the results of a local study completed by Hamilton County bus drivers on a single day in late April:

243: Number of bus drivers completing surveys

212: Number of buses passed on day of survey

83: Occurred in the morning

129: Occurred in the afternoon

186: Buses were passed from the front

26: Buses were passed from the rear

208: Buses were passed on the left

4: Buses were passed on the right

  • photo
    A school bus stops to let students off at the intersection of Ringgold Road and Swope Drive in East Ridge.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

THE LAW IN TENNESSEE

When the red lights are flashing and the stop arm is extended, this indicates that the bus has stopped and that children are now getting on or off the bus. Motorists must stop their cars and wait until the red flashing lights are turned off, the stop arm is withdrawn, and the bus begins moving before they start driving again. When a school bus is stopped at an intersection to load and unload children, drivers from all directions are required to stop until the bus resumes motion. When driving on a highway with separate roadways for traffic in opposite directions, divided by a median space or a barrier not suitable for vehicular traffic, the driver need not stop, but should proceed with caution.

THE LAW IN GEORGIA

Once the flashing lights have turned red and the stop signs have extended from the side of the bus, it is unlawful for any vehicle to pass the stopped school bus while it is loading or unloading passengers. On a highway divided by a median, cars traveling on the opposite side from the stopped school bus are not required to stop.

Source: National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services

Drivers almost always turn their heads and look away when they pass Tim Smith's stopped bright yellow school bus with the flashing lights and the bright red stop sign extended.

"They'll speed up and turn their head the opposite way like they don't see," he said. "They just look the other way."

Smith drives between 50 and 80 students at a time along Dayton Pike in Soddy-Daisy. And in recent years, more and more drivers are disregarding the flashing lights and the stop sign and rolling right on by.

It's easy to write off as outliers incidents like the one that sent a 17-year-old Hixson High School student to the hospital last month after he was hit by oncoming traffic near his bus stop. After all, yellow buses remain the safest mode of transport.

But school officials say motorists are becoming increasingly reckless around school bus stops.

And they hope to do something about it.

Hamilton County bus drivers last month participated in a statewide effort to collect data on how many motorists ignore the law and pass buses that are stopped with their stop signs out and flashing lights on.

In a single day, bus drivers counted 212 violators who passed their stopped buses. That's nearly one for every bus. Most occurred during afternoon dropoffs, not morning pickups. And most people were passing the buses from the front, not the rear.

Drivers documented four cases in which cars dangerously passed on the right side of the bus where students were let out.

Hamilton County Schools Transportation Director Ben Coulter said his department wants to spread the word to motorists about the law and the dangers of passing a stopped bus. And if education doesn't work, he's betting more enforcement will. Bus drivers know their routes well enough to report problem spots to police ahead of time, Coulter said.

"We can tell them what time they're going to be there," he said. "Sometimes it's the same people every day doing it."

Coulter said he's working with local law enforcement agencies to step up enforcement, especially around problem areas.

Bus drivers say heavily traveled roads often pose the biggest problems. People seem to be more patient in neighborhoods and along rural routes.

The law requires that motorists yield to a bus with its lights flashing and stop sign out, whether they're headed in the same direction or in the opposite. Even on heavily trafficked roads. Even if there's a center turn lane.

There's only one exception.

"In order to pass by a stopped school bus from the front there has to be an impassable median," said Lt. Ray Robinson with the Tennessee Highway Patrol's pupil transportation division.

Tommy Hodge, who drives an East Ridge route, said he gets passed several times a day at his stops on Ringgold Road. Hodge's passengers never have to cross the busy road because he drops off on both sides of the road. So motorists going the opposite direction may see no danger, but they still must stop.

"If you're not paying attention to a big 40-foot yellow bus with flashing lights on it, you're probably not paying attention to anything," Hodge said.

Drivers also note that stops are loaded or unloaded quickly, usually within a minute or two.

With school buses on the road about half of the days of the year, Faye Feilds said motorists should know how to react to bus stops.

"You would think people out there would know this by now," she said. "It happens every day."

Feilds is a former bus driver in Hamilton County who now drops off and picks up her two grandchildren at the bus stop each day. She's noticed more people breezing past bus stops, she said, but still doesn't worry too much about their safety since she's there.

"I get mad too about people passing. But I pretty much keep my eye on them," she said. "They're safe on the bus. It's the getting off the bus that gets scary."

In fact, buses are the safest means of travel to and from school, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The group estimates that students are 50 times more likely to arrive at school alive if they take the bus than if they ride in a car.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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