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 ( 52 )
  • See all comments
  • Stephen Foltz

     | about 5 months ago

    FIrst off, starting with the amber lights prior to an actual stop adds ambiguity to the driver's situation. When it is up to the bus driver to initialize the amber signals, some turn them on as much as 20-30 seconds before the bus even comes to a halt. And in other cases, I have observed a bus coming to a full stop and the red signals not being turned on until 2-3 seconds after. It just lends additional uncertainty and frustration for drivers. And I am convinced it decreases safety rather than enhances it, because drivers will be uncertain about when or if it is okay to continue past a bus. I agree with Mr. Thompson's view that the present requirement needs to be a lot more black and white. Leaving these things up to the driver only increases inconsistent application of the rules.

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