Road Rules: Stopping for the school bus


Question: If a northbound school bus on a four-lane road stops to drop off kids before an intersection and I’m traveling south and intending to turn west, do I have stop for the bus? What if it’s raining, and I’m parallel to train tracks? And how many third graders does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer: OK, no one sent that question, but I’ve received many oddly specific questions about passing school buses. However, they all fit into the categories of either “I’m confused” or “other drivers are confused.”

Let’s try to clear up some of that confusion. The first sentence of  the relevant law says that a driver who is overtaking or meeting a school bus that is stopped to drop off or pick up students and has activated a “visual signal (flashing red lights and stop sign) shall stop the vehicle before reaching such bus.” That’s the default. You stop for the bus. There are two exceptions, which we’ll get to in a bit.

First I want to know, what do “overtaking” and “meeting” mean? They’re not defined in the law, but “overtaking” is used when one vehicle is passing another in the same direction, while “meeting” is used when vehicles pass each other in the opposite direction. Why is that important? The law pertains to vehicles that are “overtaking or meeting” a school bus. 

Imagine you’re approaching an intersection, and to your left there’s a bus with its visual signals on dropping off some kids. Of your three options to proceed through the intersection, only a left turn would trigger a “meeting” with the bus, so if you’re going that way you have to stop until the lights and sign are off and away. If you’re heading straight or making a right turn, you’re not overtaking the bus, so this law wouldn’t be relevant.

You may need to stop for other reasons, like kids crossing the street. Even though the bus law doesn’t apply, others might, like the one that states that drivers, “shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian upon any roadway.” My point here is that this isn’t a binary decision. Multiple factors influence what is a safe and legal maneuver on the road. 

And now for the exceptions to the requirement to stop for school buses. One: Driving in the opposite direction from the bus on a highway divided into separate roadways. If the road has a barrier or a median at least 18 inches wide you don’t need to stop. You don’t need to get a ruler out, but the separation should make it obvious that no vehicles should cross. Two: Driving in the opposite direction on a road with three or more lanes. 

What if there are four lanes in the same direction? Not an exception.

What if I’m really late for work? Definitely not an exception, and maybe work on your time management skills.

What if the bus is pulled all the way off of the roadway? Okay, you got me. It’s not exactly an exception, but if the bus driver has only activated the hazard lights rather than the “visual signal”, it’s okay to pass. The law only allows a bus driver to do this if none of the children being dropped off need to cross the street.

What if we’re in galactic hypertubes? I don’t know what those are, but if they involve passing a school bus, not an exception.

And to answer the final question: Change a lightbulb? It’s an LED, grandpa. I’ll be in college before that burns out.

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes


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