A red octagon undoubtedly is one of the most instantly recognizable symbols. It's so familiar that it conveys its message - STOP - even without that word emblazoned across the middle. Unfortunately, attaching those octagons (in the form of stop arms) to the sides of school buses seems to render the signs powerless - possibly invisible; "I didn't see it" being the most common excuse offered. That excuse, of course, is unacceptable when lives are at stake. Stop arms exist to provide a safety zone for children, especially inattentive children. The stop arm, by grabbing a motorist's attention, acts as insurance against a child's momentary lapse that could lead to tragedy. The reality, however, is that many motorists don't heed school bus stop arms (or the flashing red lights) and children occasionally are injured or killed as a result. "People just don't get it," says Deborah Lincoln, Oregon's state director for pupil transportation, with evident frustration. "It isn't just school buses," she adds. "We drive faster than the posted speed limit, run all the red lights we possibly can. People are just in a hurry and don't want to stop." Across the country in Fairfax, Va., the situation essentially is the same. "They're listening to the radio, talking on the phone, thinking about where they need to be," says Tim Parker, assistant transportation director for the Fairfax County Public Schools. Parker recalls a 1997 survey that tracked stop arm violations in the state. In Fairfax County alone, 819 motorists drove past extended stop arms in a single day. Unfortunately, the numbers elsewhere are worse. In 1995, a similar one-day Florida study, conducted by the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research, tallied more than 10,000 stop arm violations in a single day. Incredibly, more than 400 of those drivers passed on the right. Even more sobering, Jim Brown, founder and state director of New York's Operation Safe Stop, says the passing motorist is that state's No. 2 killer of school-age children. Not all of those fatalities occurred around school buses, but the danger posed by passing vehicles is clear.
Why don't people get it?
One school transportation director neatly summarized another reality: "Passing a school bus with flashing lights is illegal anywhere on the continent." That's basically true, but complicated by inconsistent enforcement and a jumble of different, sometimes conflicting state laws. In Oregon, for example, Lincoln says stop arm violators are especially prevalent in border cities, where interstate highways bring in many motorists who are unfamiliar with the particulars of the Oregon law. Motorist confusion is a widely cited factor in the proliferation of stop arm violations, and not only for cross-border traffic. In January, California implemented the Thomas Edward Lanni School Bus Safety Act, named after a young boy who was killed by a passing motorist. While the new law, which more than doubled the fines for stop arm violations, was intended as a crackdown of sorts on stop arm violators, it apparently is having an unintended effect. Because the law requires bus drivers to activate the stop arm and flashing lights at every stop, motorists are treating the signs like a red herring. Additionally, bus drivers must activate the amber warning lights at least 200 feet before coming to a stop and activating the stop arm. Apparently, that's not a sufficient warning in many situations, as school bus drivers across the state report surprised motorists making "panic stops," causing chain-reaction collisions among other motorists. Moreover, interviews with violators indicate that awareness of the stop arm law is no greater than before the new law went into effect. Although the new law is less than a year old, amendments already are before the California legislature. Are the stop arm laws too obscure or too confusing? "That's just an excuse," says Neal Abramson, assistant director of transportation for the Santa Monica-Malibu (Calif.) Public Schools. "People want to be confused because it justifies their mistake. It's plain and simple: It says on the back of the bus 'Stop When Red Lights Flash.' If they are flashing, you stop; if they are not, you go - how hard is that?" Although L.A. traffic is often rude and reckless, Abramson says that for several years he drove school buses in the Midwest, where, he says, stop arm laws are just as routinely violated. Indeed, stop arm violations seem to cut across every regional and geographic boundary. Even in California's Humboldt County, a rural, heavily wooded region, stop arm violations have their own distinct character, according to Dan Pires, transportation director at Eureka City Schools. He explains that following a school bus on a rural road is "like following a motorhome on a mountain road; motorists are looking for the first opportunity to get around it," and that opportunity may come when the bus stops to load or unload passengers.