Is the School Bus Warning Light System Clear Enough?

Thomas McMahon
Posted on January 30, 2018
A petitioner asked NHTSA to make changes to the way warning lights are displayed when school buses are stopping to load or unload passengers. File photo by Bob Markwardt
A petitioner asked NHTSA to make changes to the way warning lights are displayed when school buses are stopping to load or unload passengers. File photo by Bob Markwardt

In the long-running war on illegal passing of school buses, there has been a steady stream of new ideas and products aimed at getting more motorists to stop for the bus.

A recent entry came in a petition from a man named William H. Thompson III to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Thompson asked NHTSA to make changes to the way warning lights are displayed when school buses are stopping to load or unload passengers.

Essentially, Thompson’s idea is to add a step between the displaying of the amber lights and the displaying of the red lights. So after the amber lights flash, and before the red lights flash and stop arm extends, both the ambers and reds would alternately flash.

Another component of Thompson’s proposal is to have the transition to the red lights controlled by a timer — instead of by the opening of the service door, as is typically the case. Thompson suggested three seconds as the amount of time for the intermediate stage in which both the amber lights and red lights alternately flash.

As presented in NHTSA’s response to Thompson, published in the Federal Register on Friday, the proposed process would go like this:

When approaching a stop, the school bus driver would activate the amber lights with a switch (same as current procedure). As the bus makes its “final approach,” the bus driver would hit the switch a second time, activating the intermediate display in which both the amber lights and red lights alternately flash. After about three seconds, the display would change to red lights only and the stop arm would extend.

In his petition to NHTSA, Thompson argued that the current school bus warning light system doesn’t effectively communicate when the loading or unloading process will begin, because the amber lights go straight to red when the door opens. According to Thompson, this causes uncertainty and unsafe driving behaviors, such as “passing school buses while the red signal lamps are flashing and stop arm is extended and being cited by law enforcement, making a ‘panic stop’ to avoid passing the school bus as not to break the law and making a sudden stop and having a following motorist caught unaware.’’

On Friday, NHTSA published its response to Thompson’s petition (which, it’s worth noting, he sent the agency more than five years ago). The agency denied the petition, citing two key reasons:

“First, we do not believe confusion over the meaning of school bus signal warning lamps is a safety need that must be addressed by amending the lighting standard,” NHTSA wrote. “Second, Mr. Thomson [sic] has not provided data persuasively demonstrating changes he proposed would lead to a net benefit for vehicle safety.”

Interestingly, NHTSA also argued that Thompson’s proposal could actually cause further confusion for motorists when school buses are stopping.

“Given there is evidence drivers are already confused about laws relating to stop-arm violations,” the agency wrote, “we do not think it would be beneficial for safety to make the signal warning lamp activation sequence more complex than it already is (as would be the case under Mr. Thompson’s request).”

Of course, Thompson is not the only one who thinks that motorists need a clearer message about when to stop for school buses. As another example, last month Michigan lawmakers passed a bill that allows school buses to be equipped with an electronic sign that alternately flashes the words “caution” and “stopping” when the amber lights are activated, and then “stop” or “do not pass” when the red lights are activated. The sign literally spells it out for approaching motorists.

I’m interested to hear what readers think about this issue. Is the current school bus warning light system clear enough? Or should changes be made — whether something like Thompson proposed or some other adjustment or addition? Post a comment below.

Related Topics: danger zone, lighting, NHTSA, school bus stops, stop-arm running/illegal passing

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
Comments ( 49 )
  • See all comments
  • Madge

     | about 18 days ago

    I live in Michigan and have come upon SO many buses where the driver does not extend the stop sign arm. I was taught if it isn’t extended, we don’t have to stop. I can find no reference as to what to do when the driver fails to extend the stop arm. It is so confusing!

More Stories
A video about the career of special-needs school bus driver Karen Sweet was one of the standout videos posted on SBF's website in 2018.
News

Editor's Picks 2018: Videos of the Year

A career spotlight on one special-needs school bus driver and second graders teaching school bus safety were a couple of School Bus Fleet’s web highlights in 2018.

A story about a motorist who was arrested for allegedly failing to stop for a school bus was the most-viewed news item on the SBF website this year. The screenshot above is from bus video posted on Missouri’s Parkway School District’s Facebook page.
News

Top 5 Most-Viewed News Stories of 2018

News that drew the most traffic on the School Bus Fleet website this year covered illegal school bus passing, a petition for tougher penalties on stop-arm running, and student and driver fatalities in the danger zone.

An article about how to keep school buses and sites secure was the most-viewed feature on the SBF website this year. Photo courtesy National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
News

Top 5 Most-Viewed Feature Articles of 2018

Feature articles that drew the most traffic on the School Bus Fleet website in 2018 included tips on school bus safety, electric school buses, and student behavior management.

The Idaho State Department of Education’s PSA asks motorists to be engaged and "watch for school buses as they pick up and drop off kids.”
News

PSA Promotes School Bus Safety in Idaho

The Idaho State Department of Education’s public service announcement asks motorists to be engaged and "watch for school buses as they pick up and drop off kids.”

The National School Transportation Association gains an exemption from the Unified Carrier Registration Board's fleet size calculation for school vehicles owned by contractors that are operated exclusively as intrastate school transportation.
News

NSTA Gains Fee Exemption for Intrastate School Buses

The National School Transportation Association receives a fee exemption from the Unified Carrier Registration Board's fleet size calculation for school vehicles owned by contractors that are operated exclusively as intrastate school transportation.

Be the First to Know

Get the latest news and most popular articles from SBF delivered straight to your inbox. Stay on top of the school bus industry and don't miss a thing!