Beware your Cousins’ Idiosyncrasies: Quirks to Schoolbuses and Schoolbus Operation

As regular or occasional followers of this column probably remember, my transportation background is unique because I have spent a significant chunk of it in almost every non-rail passenger transportation mode and designed many of their systems and some of their vehicles. The luxury of this experience has given me a perspective that has often enabled me to share innovations as well as deficiencies of one mode with those operating others – although I have been accused, particularly by school bus and motorcoach industry purists, of poisoning one another’s atmospheres with such information.

Whatever one’s take on this cross-breeding of knowledge may be, I have always felt that much can be learned from our fellow-modes’ challenges and idiosyncrasies, just as much can be learned from their successes. Examples of the latter include, Supershuttle, the brainchild of my first consulting client, taxi industry genius Mitchell Rouse, whose unsubsidized, hybrid mode grew out of our extended, long-running debate over the benefits of exclusive-ride versus shared-ride paratransit service. (The new mode was all Rouse’s idea, and he alone is responsible for developing it and spearheading its proliferation.) At the other extreme lies the bitter irony that interstate carriers – both in the motorcoach and trucking sectors – are more vulnerable to the dangers of another bus industry cousin than any mode, public or private, operating in a single state. To put it another way: What are the most dangerous 450,000 vehicles to drive behind?

The Quirks of Industry Standards

Other than obvious caveats ignored by regulations (e.g., “Don’t shoot or molest the passengers), there are surprisingly few regulations that govern public transportation of any kind – a constant irritant to plaintiff’s attorneys who think everything must naturally be regulated. Instead, much public transportation behavior is governed largely by what are referred to as industry standards – those things that I feel a “reasonable and prudent” driver or his or her management should do. These standards are pretty much the same for members of each mode, aside from some differences that are largely geographic (e.g., one does not need snow tires in Florida or air conditioning in Minnesota). Yet not only is the single exception school buses, but the variation in procedures from state to state in this sector, particularly with regard to the differences related to the use of crossing equipment, is as startling as it is inexcusable. For those who wish to know much more about this, I will be penning a seven-installment series about these vivid and often dangerous differences beginning this June in School Transportation News. In the meantime, for my motorcoach brothers, I thought I would share a few of the highlights with you here – although the term lowlights may be more appropriate.

Flashers and Fakers

Largely because school buses are a state rather than Federal phenomenon, few states contain retrofit provisions that require the installation of new improvements on existing vehicles. For most modes, this failure is harmless. But it is the likely cause of hundreds of school bus-related crossing fatalities a year, and probably a ghastly number of vehicle-to-vehicle collisions. While school buses have contained red flashers for roughly 50 years, stop arms (which most school buses now have) and, later, amber flashers (which only some school buses have) are required as retrofits in only a small handful of states (e.g., Missouri). This problem is by far the most serious in California, Oregon and Washington, three states where Crown and Gillig school buses still roam the highways and byways because of their decades-long durability, and the fact that until their manufacturers’ demise, they were the only school buses that met these state’s specifications – even though both manufacturers abandoned the school bus business in 1991, shortly after amber flashers became a NHTSA requirement. As only school bus insiders know, however, the procedures for engaging “four-way” flashers (i.e., buses containing only red flashers) are different than they are for engaging them on buses containing “eight-way” flashers (i.e., those buses with both red and amber flashers), with the single exception of California. Compounding this problem, many drivers of four-way buses who feel their vehicles are dangerous because they lack amber flashers use the bus’ caution lights (i.e., both turn signals activated together) as a substitute for the ”ambers.” Thus, for a driver who travels through a series of states, he or she will likely encounter three types of flashers, and three approaches to flasher engagement.

The question is: How is a motorist to know what the engagement of these devices means? This problem is compounded further by the fact that the distance for engaging the amber flashers not only differs from state-to-state, but that the required distance in several states(Arizona, Maryland and Rhode Island) is so little (e.g., within 100 feet of the bus stop) that, traveling at a reasonable speed, the stopping time and distance for a bus stop only 100 feet away is less than the average motorist’s reaction time – even forgetting about the distance then needed for braking. Last year, in one of these states, I helped a family sue the financial genitals off a school district when one motorist was unable to stop in time, and her car submarined beneath the rear of the school bus, beheading her sister.

It is important to keep a safe following distance behind any vehicle, for reasons most NBT readers well know. But it is far more critical to stay far behind a school bus, since its tendency to screech to a stop is not only different from state to state, but outright unreasonable in many of them.

Potpourri of Poisonous Perplexity

Apart from the inexcusable state-to-state differences in school bus flashers, retrofit requirements, and the rules for their engagement, some of these procedures, by themselves would keep my motorcoach as far from a moving school bus as I could possibly get it. Here is just a small sample of the madness:

  • In Michigan, a motorist need not even stop for a loading or loading school bus. Instead, the motorist can pass it at up to 10 mph. In New Jersey, the motorist can pass it at 15 mph. Further, in New Jersey, “frozen desert trucks” can also have and engage red flashers – and the same rules for passing them apply as well, even though they are not remotely as conspicuous. In contrast, in Ohio, a motorist must stop behind a stopped streetcar and a “trackless trolley.”
  • In Colorado, school buses smaller than 15-passenger vehicles do not even require flashers. They can screech to a stop without any warning at all. In many other states, all sorts of vehicles are allowed to contain and engage flashers. Small, white school buses in Massachusetts are famous for this incantation.
  • In Delaware, New Jersey and Ohio, a school bus’ flashers need not even be engaged in loading zones (i.e., at or adjacent to the school), the most frenetic areas of pedestrian and motorist activity, where they are most needed. (This “free zone” is 500 feet from the schools’ front door in New Jersey.) In Delaware, flashers need not be engaged if the bus is carrying non-students. So you mind-readers out there, or those of you with X-ray vision, pay particular attention when cruising through this state.
  • In Virginia, except when loading or unloading special ed students, a school bus may only engage its red flashers when stopped beyond another bus. So in Virginia, if you are driving behind a bus, make sure to employ your X-ray vision to see what is in front of it. Or perhaps, employ your defensive driving skills and “aim high.”
  • In Alaska, South Dakota and Utah, motorists need not stop at all when the school bus engages its amber flashers, but instead, need merely reduce its passing speed to 20 mph. In Nebraska, you can pass it at 25 mph.
  • In quite a few states – Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia – you must stop for a school bus engaging its red flashers at an intersection even when approaching the bus from a perpendicular street.
  • The language of some state’s regulations are so fuzzy that it’s hard to know what they even mean, much less what one must do to comply with them. In Iowa, for example, a motorist coming upon a school bus is “limited” to traveling 20 mph. Yet a driver “overtaking” a school bus in that state may not pass it if its amber or red flashers are engaged, but instead, must stop at least 15 feet in front of it. Huh?
  • The distance behind a school bus at which motorists must stop when the school bus’\C2 flashers are engaged is 10 feet in Connecticut, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Mexico, 15 feet in Iowa and South Dakota, 20 feet in Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, 25 feet in New Hampshire and New Jersey, and 30 feet in Alaska and Louisiana. How many of you will remember this tomorrow morning? How many of you remember it now?
  • Some state regulations seem to not have been updated since the invention of the typewriter: In West Virginia, a motorist must stop when a school bus driver must either engage the bus’ red flashers, or its driver must stand outside the bus waving a red flag.
  • The confusion is even worse on “divided” or “controlled-access highways,” especially since few states agree on what these even are. For example, in Arizona, a bus lane on either side of a two-way left turn lane is not considered a separate roadway. (A two-lane what?!) In Nebraska, the regulatory language suggests that the divider need be only a double-yellow line. In contrast, in Tennessee, a divided highway must be a “separate roadway,” which state regulations define as “a roadway divided by an intervening space not suitable to vehicular traffic.”

Now: Are you ready for the quiz?

Words to the Wise and Unwise Alike

Obviously, only the rarest of interstate drivers can remember things like this – and the citations above are merely samples. Frankly, I do not even understand what many of them even mean. The best advice I have is to not bother trying. If you want to keep your passengers safe, and the schoolbus passengers on a vehicle with a mass as great as your own vehicle safe as well, just stay as far away from these big, taxi-colored metal monsters with the crazy antlers as you possibly can. And forget about following distance when driving behind one: Slow down and let some other lightweight sucker whose vehicle can stop more quickly than yours pull in front of you and drive between your coach and the schoolbus. Just remember to remain a huge following distance behind that vehicle.

Publications: National Bus Trader.