Unlike those of many transit systems, school bus stops are not always identified with signage – at either the precise position of the stop or signage indicating that a school bus stop is approaching (the black glyph on yellow background). Rarely is the stop zone itself marked (for example, by red-lining the curb). In particular, the failure to mark the stop’s precise positioning can be problematic – and occasionally dangerous.
Creating a bus stop zone of appropriate length, keeping it clear of unauthorized vehicles, and ensuring that school bus drivers pull their vehicles close to and parallel with the curb may seem nitpicky. Don’t believe this for a minute. The death and maiming of numerous schoolchildren, and the lawsuits they have triggered, have convinced me that such precision is not only worthy of executing properly and religiously, but critical to crossing safety. Like so many other nuances of crossing safety, the Devil is in the details.
Proximity and Parallelism
A full-size bus with a single front door requires roughly a 90-foot “zone” in which to pull close to (between six and 12 inches) and parallel to the curb. When the bus rests further out, the importance of its parallel positioning is even greater: If the alighting passenger must step into the roadway, stepping into a rectangle is far easier and safer than stepping into the trapezoid created when the bus “noses in.”
A full-size bus with a mid- or rear-positioned wheelchair lift requires an even longer zone – roughly 120 feet – in order to pull the bus parallel to the curb such that both doors are close to it. When school bus stops are placed at mid-block positions, typically the favored position on low-traffic-volume “local” and “collector” streets, parked cars can make it difficult to find a bus zone of adequate length. Pulling properly into the zone is the easiest for a far-side stop, since the width of the intersection can be used as part of the approach space the bus needs to pull properly into place. However, far-side stops are generally a poor choice for a school bus stop. While students are taught to cross in front of the bus, they are also taught to cross at intersections that lie behind the bus at far-side stops. Notwithstanding occasional conflicts with signalized intersections, near-side stops are generally safer. But unless automobile parking is restricted several car-lengths from the corner, the bus driver may not have enough room to pull the bus close to and parallel with the curb.
Positioning and Crossing
This precision is important to crossing safety largely because of the conical-shaped area displayed in the street-side, exterior, rear-view mirrors. If the bus is forced to “nose in,” the driver’s ability to observe traffic approaching the bus from the rear is compromised, particularly with respect to vehicles traveling in the lane directly behind the bus. There’s always the possibility that motorists may decide to change lanes and make an illegal pass-by. With a sharp nosing-in, the bus driver may not be able to observe vehicles approaching the bus even from the adjacent travel lane. Without the ability to observe the approaching traffic’s stoppage, the bus driver cannot define the moment in which to safely direct the students across the roadway.
Nosing in also creates problems on the curb side of the bus. Because the bus is positioned on an angle, the rear tires lie further away from the curb, and create a larger rear “danger zone” for students to walk or fall into. The image depicted in the curb-side, exterior, rear-view mirrors also “hugs” the curb, and the area that the driver needs to see uninhabited by pedestrians will not include enough distance away from the curb. As a consequence, the driver will not be able to “clear the mirrors” or fully observe the uninhabited “danger zone” around the rear, curb-side tires. Particularly where crossing information is lacking (e.g., the passengers who need to cross are not identified on drivers’ logs) and procedures are executed sloppily (e.g., drivers may permit students to cross behind the bus), the inability to fully observe the danger zone – including the sidewalk a reasonable distance behind the bus – can impede the bus driver’s ability to help mitigate crossing accidents.
Finally, crossing students are taught (or should be) to look both ways before stepping out from in front of the bus. Nosing in swings the bus’ tail out at an angle, and inhibits a crossing student’s ability to observe traffic approaching the bus from the rear – traffic that might ignore the red flashers and stop arm. Instead, to catch the first glimpse of this traffic, the student may have to step out several feet beyond the street-side edge of the bus. And motorists approaching from the rear, even in the adjacent travel lane, may not be able to see the stop arm.
Particularly for elementary school-age children, ignoring these vital components of proper bus positioning and alignment can lead to tragedy. By committing themselves to precision bus positioning and alignment, school bus drivers can contribute meaningfully to avoiding one.