Putting a Stop to Illegal Passing

Claire Atkinson, Senior Editor
Posted on November 1, 2008

We see the headlines every day, from all parts of the country. From the Port St. Lucie (Fla.) News: “St. Lucie County law enforcement says many bus stop accidents can be avoided.” From the Lake County (Ill.) News-Sun: “Police crack down on school bus passers.” From the Times & Democrat in Orangeburg, S.C.: “School openings mean more traffic, more crashes, more efforts to change trend.”

The news is full of stories warning motorists to be aware of buses and students, especially at the beginning of the school year. Yet drivers continue to pass school buses illegally, putting law enforcement officials and pupil transportation professionals at their wits’ end. How to get through to the public that when the stop sign is out and the red lights are flashing, all vehicles must stop?

The Pupil Transportation Safety Institute recently issued a public service announcement, in which Syracuse (N.Y.) City School District Transportation Director Pat Bailey warns of the severity of the illegal-passing problem and urges motorists to stop when a school bus’ lights are flashing and the stop arm is activated.

In a guide to reducing illegal passing of the school bus released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency cites reasons for the frequency of stop arm violations. Often, violations are not reported because it is difficult for school bus drivers to gather the information needed to prosecute motorists. In addition, the law goes unenforced in many areas because police officers are not on hand to catch violators. Lastly, the public is largely ignorant of the law prohibiting the passing of a school bus when the stop sign is activated and red lights are flashing; many are also not aware that the law applies to vehicles on both sides of undivided roads.

Ron Kinney, director of government and industry relations for First Student, tells a story from his days as a school bus driver of parking his bus to escort children across the street (as required by law for elementary students in California) and having to prevent a mother from running over her own children getting off the bus. “She ran the red lights, and I said, ‘What are you doing? These are your kids I’m trying to get across the street here,’” Kinney recalls. “Let me tell you, she did not see the bus.

“There are some idiots out there — don’t get me wrong — but for the most part, people that run the red lights are folks that are right there in your own community,” he continues. “Some of them even have kids on your buses. They’re not doing it to be malicious. In fact, they don’t even know that they do it, half the time.”

“I think as long as you or I are on this earth, we’re going to continue to have [violations],” says Larry Bluthardt, Kansas state director of pupil transportation, “until it strikes home, where there’s a catastrophe, and then in that area, you’ll see everyone start to pay more attention.”

This lack of awareness on the part of motorists — who are often in a rush, driving on “autopilot” or distracted by cell phones or other devices — means that the problem will never disappear completely. But with the combined efforts of school officials, transportation experts, parents, police and communities, violations can be held at a minimum, reducing risk and saving lives.

Outreach to the public
Kinney theorizes that motorists need to be “reprogrammed” to recognize new obstacles or signals while driving. “They go down the same road every day, and their mind is a mile away thinking about something else,” he says. On the other hand, the drivers who do see the school bus sometimes get frustrated that it’s blocking their path, prompting them to make a risky pass on the left or even the right side of the bus. Some are so angered by the presence of the bus on the road that they call the school to complain.

Bluthardt recommends that school transportation personnel be prepared for these calls. “What we tell folks when they start calling is, ‘Call the transportation office, ask them what time that bus is going to be coming by, and then alter your route,’” he explains. “We’ve even had bus schedules published in local newspapers.”

Outreach to the public can be a crucial component in a program to reduce stop arm violations. If the public is more aware of pupil transportation in their community, they will be more likely to “see” the bus and stop when the red lights are flashing.

In North Carolina, the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, in partnership with the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), has established “Operation Stop Arm” to crack down on violations.

According to Derek Graham, section chief of transportation services for DPI, the North Carolina State Highway Patrol has been working to reduce traffic violations around school buses during Operation Stop Arm for the past several years.

“It was precipitated when on a single day in two different counties, we had three students struck by passing motorists,” Graham says. There were no fatalities, but law enforcement agencies were prompted to take action.

The departments hold a joint press conference to kick off the safety-themed week and to raise public awareness about the problem of illegal passing. Then, throughout the week, state troopers follow bus routes in marked and unmarked units to catch motorists in the act of running school bus stop signs.

According to bus driver surveys collected by DPI, approximately 2,300 vehicles a day drive by school buses displaying the red flashing lights and stop sign. North Carolina experienced six student fatalities during the period of 1999 to 2004. In 2007, troopers followed 1,260 buses and rode along on 23 buses during Operation Stop Arm, resulting in 17 tickets issued to motorists for passing a stopped school bus.

DPI also maintains a school bus safety Website at that provides links to statistics tracking stop arm violations in the state, articles from the media covering the issue, data collection forms for bus drivers to use in reporting stop arm violations, and other resources.

National School Bus Safety Week — held each year during the third week of October — can also be a good time for communities to hold awareness events and publish notices in local newspapers to reach out to the public. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t always get to all the people it needs to get to because there are just so many people on the road,” Kinney says. “It’s just like all the other traffic situations we have. Even now we have cameras that take your picture at the light-controlled signals, but that doesn’t stop people.”

Training for bus drivers and passengers
With such a high level of risk from passing motorists, responsibility for protecting children during loading and unloading also lies with the school bus driver.

The state of New York requires drivers to learn a universal crossing signal that notifies children when it’s safe to cross the street. Jim Ellis, transportation director at Moravia (N.Y.) Central School District, helped create a guide to bus stop safety (available online at; click on “SBSIOBSAAT”) that details safe crossing procedures. Training drivers to be aware of traffic conditions around the bus and to maintain eye contact with students waiting to cross is critical to ensuring their safety. Similarly, students also need to be trained to watch for the bus driver’s signal, and to be aware of oncoming traffic during loading and unloading.

Many pupil transportation officials from California are proponents of the state’s requirement that school bus drivers escort elementary students who need to cross the street before boarding or after disembarking the bus. Officials from other states sometimes contend that this practice conflicts with laws prohibiting the driver from exiting the bus while students are on board.

Kinney, who is a former director of pupil transportation for the California Department of Education and past president of the California Association of School Transportation Officials and the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, says the driver-escorted crossing policy has saved countless lives since it was adopted in the state in 1953. “If you look at all the equipment and lights and the bells and the whistles that are put on those buses, none of those has stopped people from running the red lights, nor do I think they will,” he explains. “The driver, like a crossing guard, during the escort ensures that a safety zone is there for the children to cross the street.”

Partnering with law enforcement
Some municipalities require that the driver of the vehicle be identified in order to prosecute a stop arm violation. School bus drivers have been able to note the license plate number of the vehicle in many cases, identifying the owner of the vehicle, but getting a description of the driver is far more difficult, especially while behind the wheel of a school bus full of children.

Some school districts work with their city attorneys to enact an ordinance allowing violations to be prosecuted based on the reported license plate numbers. “They find the registered owner and mail the owner a notice to appear,” Bluthardt explains. However, “Some cities won’t allow it, because they need to identify the driver of the suspect vehicle. But bus drivers are watching the students get on and off, who’s sitting down, who’s fighting on the bus and the other motorists around. And now you want them to see what color of hair that person has? It’s ridiculous.”

Bluthardt advises transportation directors that if they still face high numbers of stop arm violations after making an outreach effort to the public, they should invite the local chief of police or county sheriff to the next school board meeting. “Have the members of the board and some of the bus drivers who are having this ongoing problem address the issue to the chief of police or county sheriff or both, and let them see the statistics.”

Bluthardt suggests that schools work with law enforcement to have officers watch the routes where the most infractions occur. Having an officer ride on the school bus and radio a unit parked nearby when an illegal pass is made is another effective way to catch motorists. Because police are practiced in reporting vehicles when a traffic violation occurs, they will be able to quickly identify and communicate the necessary information. If officers are present on certain routes for a week, or on unannounced days, the word starts to spread to the motoring public, Bluthardt says. “When they start doing the fine and court cost — and not only that, they’re being detained when they’re already late to work — that really seems to hurt.”

Kinney points out that drivers seem to go off autopilot when cops are out on the roads. “They seem to always come back to reality when there is a law enforcement car in the area,” he says. “Their mind is not wandering off about what they’re going to do at the store when they get there and go shopping.”

At Clay Community Schools in Brazil, Ind., Director of Transportation Frank Misner says his drivers were getting frustrated with frequent stop arm violations, so he asked the police to get involved. For more than 10 years, Misner has been training drivers to contact the dispatcher with the license plate numbers of motorists who pass their buses illegally. “The police monitor our frequency, and if they are in the area, they will catch them on the spot,” he says. The dispatcher then notifies the local prosecutor, who contacts the owner of the vehicle.

Misner recommends that other districts get in touch with local law enforcement to work together in a similar manner. “Several of our local, county and state police have relatives that drive for us, so it was easy to get them involved,” he explains. As a result, Misner says that the number of violations has decreased. “You will still have people who are in a hurry or not paying attention, but for the most part, [violations] are down.”

{+PAGEBREAK+} Devices and equipment
Many companies and individuals involved in school bus security and video recording technology have begun engineering products to help prevent stop arm violations or to help law enforcement prosecute motorists who pass the school bus illegally.

The AlertStar system focuses on three areas of concern with regard to school bus safety: illegal passing, onboard incidents, and loading and unloading. The system includes exterior-mounted cameras to capture vehicle information of motorists who pass the bus illegally, an interior camera system to monitor onboard activities, and a system of LED lights and audible signals outside the bus to warn children to stay out of the danger zone during loading and unloading.

According to AlertStar Corp. Chairman Brian Wesley, the system can be customized to accommodate the needs of different school bus operations. In addition, AlertStar has been refining the system during a testing project at Mesa (Ariz.) Public Schools (MPS). “Our tests have resulted in a number of improvements to our system, and we are now moving to our final phase that includes installation on 10 MPS buses,” Wesley says.

He reports that in a 23-day period, a single bus experienced 104 violations, or an average of 4.5 violations per day. “That was 104 times in one month when children were unnecessarily and negligently put at risk,” Wesley says.

Cameras mounted on both sides of the bus photograph the driver and license plate of vehicles that pass the school bus illegally, whether they approach from the front or rear of the bus and then attempt to pass on either the left or right side. The photos are then sent to AlertStar’s processing center, matched with motor vehicle registration information and forwarded to the local police department, much like stop light camera photos that are also subcontracted to third party processors. “We have trained, certified people that do the first step in the processing, but the final decision is always made by the appropriate law enforcement agency in the community,” Wesley explains.

In order to make the AlertStar system more affordable for school districts, revenue generated by paid citations is shared with the school to pay for and maintain the systems installed on each bus.

After the MPS testing project is complete, AlertStar plans to make the system available to other school districts beginning in 2009. “We already have six other communities that have indicated a real interest, so that’s our objective,” Wesley says.

As reported in SBF’s November 2007 issue, Charles Bennett has designed a red flag that extends from the school bus’ stop sign and hangs in the path of passing traffic. A year later, Bennett’s device has attracted the attention of lawmakers in Louisiana.

State Rep. Jane Smith introduced a resolution asking the Louisiana Department of Education to conduct a study of devices and methods that could prevent illegal passing of school buses, including Bennett’s flag. The resolution passed both houses over the summer, Bennett reports, and he is waiting to hear from Department of Education officials about the study. After the study is completed, the department will issue a proposal to the Legislature as to what devices or methods should be required at school bus operations.

In designing and testing the flag, Bennett installed it on about 10 buses at Bossier Parish (La.) Schools, where he served as transportation director. After retiring, he redesigned the flag to improve the extension mechanism.

“It did work — it stopped traffic,” Bennett says. “Cars would turn around and follow the bus and apologize for running, when they did — it would scare them to death. A red flag just automatically means stop or pay attention. And this is something they’re not used to seeing.”

In Kansas, some school districts have installed white strobes that are constantly illuminated, Bluthardt says. Despite some complaints from the public over the brightness of the lights, one of the districts had a major reduction in stop arm violations. “It was like something just lit up with drivers that said, ‘Stay away,’” he says. “Whatever the case may be, it worked.”

Legislative support
Every state has school bus traffic violation laws on the books, but in recent years, many legislators have begun to introduce laws making penalties harsher or streamlining methods of reporting violators.

In Arkansas, state Sen. Kim Hendren introduced Act 718 of 2007, which allowed school authorities to report violations to the local prosecutor. But due to low reporting rates, Hendren plans to introduce amended language or a separate law to increase the number of violations that are reported and end up being prosecuted, and to improve overall school bus safety.

Hendren hopes to link some funding to enforcement of the laws prohibiting stop arm violations. He would also like to make it possible for motorists on the road to call 911 when they see another driver make an illegal pass. The proposed legislation would also include a requirement that all school buses have notices on the back instructing motorists to stop when the red lights are flashing, Hendren explains.

“Local prosecutors and sheriffs need to be held accountable to the public,” Hendren says. “I continue to believe that the owner of the vehicle should be held responsible. This would eliminate this question of who was driving.”

Hendren reports that the Huntsville (Ark.) School District has installed cameras to monitor illegal passers and legislators are learning about the costs associated with the equipment based on the experiences in Huntsville. “Advances in technology are making this tool more practical, and I hope we could get some taxpayer funds for this program,” Hendren says.

In Rhode Island, both houses of the General Assembly recently passed legislation — the School Bus Safety Enforcement Act — authorizing schools to operate real-time, digital video camera systems to detect and monitor school bus law traffic violations. Under the law, schools will contract with private companies to install and maintain live video camera systems for the principal purpose of catching stop arm violators. Vendors will be reimbursed with revenue generated from paid tickets, receiving 75 percent of the funds. The remaining 25 percent is split evenly between the state’s general fund and the municipality in which the violation occurred.

School buses in the state will have signs indicating the use of monitoring systems, and violators receive a $300 fine and license suspension for up to 30 days.

SmartBus Live, a company producing live-feed digital video systems out of Providence, R.I., has begun installing cameras on school buses around the state. The live video feed is monitored by an attendant stationed at a central monitoring office, who marks places in the feed that show a vehicle passing the school bus illegally. The license plate numbers are then recorded and submitted to local law enforcement for ticketing.


Over the past 37 years, 1,151 deaths of schoolchildren have occurred during bus loading and unloading. Of those, 441 (38 percent) have been caused by a vehicle passing the bus illegally. In the 2006-07 school year, 57 percent of fatalities were caused by a vehicle passing the bus illegally.

Source: National School Bus Loading & Unloading Survey 2006-2007, Kansas State Department of Education

A comprehensive resource

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s “Best Practices Guide: Reducing Illegal Passing of School Buses” is available online at The guide contains detailed information about the problem of illegal passing, including statistics from across the U.S., as well as descriptions of successful programs initiated by school districts and law enforcement agencies. The Website also lists resources for districts looking to start their own program to reduce illegal passing.

Case Study: New York assesses violation rates, warns motorists with license plate reader

Earlier this year, the New York Association for Pupil Transportation (NYAPT) launched a pilot program with Syracuse (N.Y.) City School District (SCSD) to equip a school bus with a license plate reader that would capture vehicle information of motorists who pass the bus illegally.

Funding for the project was provided by a grant from the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The pilot was held in conjunction with the state’s Operation Safe Stop Day, when law enforcement agencies across the state partner with school districts to catch stop arm violations. After this year’s event on April 2, police in 41 participating counties reported 1,171 violations. The license plate reader was unveiled at a media event that day and was installed on an SCSD school bus through June, for a total of two and a half months.

“The media in Syracuse was incredible covering what was going on with that bus so it was getting out to the public all the time,” SCSD Transportation Director Patricia Bailey says. “We had press conferences every other week, and the media was there, reporting back on what’s going on and how serious [the problem] is.”

The reader, known as the Mobile Plate Hunter (or MPH-900) is manufactured by ELSAG North America in Greensboro, N.C. The automatic license plate recognition technology is activated when the school bus’ stop arm is out and red lights are flashing, and it only records information for vehicles that make an illegal pass, either approaching the vehicle from the front or behind, according to Luci Sheehan, the company’s vice president of federal operations. “The police department gets a report with a picture of the plate, the time and date, and GPS coordinates of the incident,” she explains.

NYAPT Executive Director Peter Mannella said in a podcast with ELSAG’s parent company, Finmeccanica, that the association had estimated stop arm violations to be at about 50,000 per day across the state before the pilot program. After the program was completed, the number of reported violations put that estimate at closer to 80,000 per day. “We ran the bus for 41 days and had 68 illegal passes, which is just over one and a half a day,” Mannella said.

In New York, law enforcement officials need the license plate number, make and model of the vehicle, and a general description of the driver in order to prosecute a stop arm violation. Police in the state had been using ELSAG technology for other purposes. “We engineered it a little bit differently for the school bus,” Sheehan says. The camera uses an infrared beam to detect the passing vehicle when the school bus’ stop arm is activated.

NYAPT applied for a grant to address the problem of stop arm violations, motivated by the frustration of not being able to successfully prosecute violations due to a lack of necessary evidence. “We can’t ask the drivers to get all this information,” Mannella said. The license plate recognition technology being used by law enforcement was identified as a potential solution.

The school bus equipped with the Mobile Plate Hunter drove a different route each week to help assess traffic patterns in different areas of the city. Although the number of violations remains high, Bailey says her drivers have noticed motorists being more careful around school buses. “Passing was more prominent on streets that had several lanes instead of just one,” she explains. “People are just busy, and they’re not paying attention. It’s gotten a little bit better, though, I have to say.”

“I think they were very smart in moving it around to get different behavior on different routes,” Sheehan says. “I can see some routes where you would want [the equipment] all the time, and other routes where it’s less of a problem where an occasional enforcement action might make sense.”

Bailey believes that equipping about a tenth of a school district’s fleet with cameras would balance route coverage with the high expenses associated with the technology. Then, she says, “Those buses go all throughout the area, people see them, the word gets out that people are getting tickets from these buses with cameras, and they just never know which ones have them.”

To listen to the full 15-minute interview with New York Association for Pupil Transportation Executive Director Peter Mannella discussing the Syracuse City Schools license plate reader pilot project, visit

Comments ( 17 )
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  • Roberta Young

     | about 5 years ago

    I have found it helpful to report hot spots of drivers passing school busses to your local law enforcement agencies. Include your operating times. They will go and stop these drivers. Also, writing to your local newspaper an open letter to residents of your hot spots about the danger they are posing to their own children. Advertising on the side of the school bus that passing while warning lights are flashing is illegal.

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