Flashers, Signals and Recognition: Part 1

Several articles ago (“The Steel Wave” in the May, 2008 of STN), I argued for the first of four crossing-related equipment changes that I feel strongly are needed to complete school bus conspicuity. These changes involve efforts to eliminate the ambiguity and temptations many motorists feel when confronting a loading or unloading school bus with its crossing devices engaged, and will clarify crossing procedures for school bus drivers, students and their parents. This second improvement is a twelve-way flasher system.

Evolution of the Eight-Way Flasher System

Nearly two decades ago, the pupil transportation community acknowledged that red flashers alone provided inadequate deterrence to motorists approaching school buses where these flashers were engaged. Part of the problem was that this single device had to serve too many roles for school bus drivers, motorists, students, parents and pedestrians, and was involved in different crossing “steps,” depending on when and for how long it was engaged. For example, most states required four-way flashers to be engaged several hundred feet before the intended bus stop. When the bus came to a stop, however, these same flashers remained engaged. Thus, there was no way to enhance or reinforce the message for those motorists still approaching the bus who had not stopped for the red flashers while the bus was still moving. And there was no way to differentiate these flashers from those of a spectrum of other vehicles (ambulances, highway construction vehicles, fire trucks, etc.).

To address this shortcoming, amber flashers, or “eight-way systems,” were devised and eventually mandated – first by selected states, and finally by NHTSA for all states – although only a few states (e.g., Missouri) legislated retrofit provisions. So most states still deploy buses with both types of flashers. Similarly, most states have established different requirements for the use of “four-way” versus “eight-way” buses (California remains the primary exception). Particularly in California, Washington and Oregon – three states whose specifications were met only by Crown and Gillig prior to their withdrawal from the school bus market in 1991 – the durability of these vehicles in school bus duty cycles was so remarkable, in limited “school bus duty cycles," that school districts and contractors in these states still deploy a large percentage of Crowns and Gilligs which contain only four-way flashers – a unique irony of their durability. This situation has been compromised further by the practice of many drivers operating four-way buses (and aware of their limitations) who engage the pair of turn signals (engaging the “emergency lights”) as substitutes for the amber flashers (see article “Retrograde and Retrofits” in the October, 2007 issue of STN) – thereby anointing their school districts and communities with three types of flashers and flasher procedures. That motorists are often confused by this variety of signals should not come as a surprise, even while they are often negligent for failing to obey these signals.

A quick glimpse of a few serious accidents illustrates the problems:

  • An elementary school students was waiting for his school bus, in his mother’s car, at the end of a long driveway to their ranch. As the bus approached its stop opposite the student’s driveway, it engaged its amber flashers – while two motorists traveling a moderate distance apart were approaching from the opposite direction. The bus driver then engaged his red flashers after the first car passed, and interpreting them as the “signal to cross,” the student’s mother let her son out of her car. Unfortunately, the second motorist was following the first one and drove right through the red flashers. The student stepped into the roadway in its path and was killed instantly.
  • A new driver operating a “four-way” bus and aware of its limitations engaged his emergency tail lights (i.e., both turn signals) as a proxy for amber lights as he approached a stop opposite the victim’s house, and then failed to pull his bus over. As one might expect, a motorist approaching the bus from behind did not interpret these lights as “amber flashers.” So as soon as the bus driver engaged his red flashers, the student entered the roadway and was instantly struck and killed by the motorist too close to, and surprised by, the sudden engagement of the red flashers not preceded by the engagement of genuine amber ones.
  • In a state where drivers must escort students across the roadway, a driver stopped to discharge a student and, after engaging its red flashers and stop arm, alighted with him and his older brother. Instead of leaving the students on the bus and entering the roadway with his stop sign, after which time he could have directed them off the bus once it was safe, he alighted with the students. Before the group could cross, a car behind the bus that had not reacted initially to the amber signals cruised through the red flashers – just as the younger student broke away from the pack and ran into the roadway. This student survived; his lawsuit was settled for $6.5M.

Moving Traffic Enigmas

Like many in the school bus community, I have often argued that school buses contain their own “moving traffic signals,” and that these signals account for the widespread compliance of motorists who stop to accommodate the loading or unloading of their passengers – most importantly, the crossing of these students that accompanies it. However, study after study have demonstrated that, even in relatively tiny service areas surveyed over short periods of time, thousands or tens of thousands of motorists ignore the red flashers and stop arms and pass by school buses in loading or unloading mode. Suggestions quoted like “urging motorists” to obey the flashers (School Bus Fleet, p. 20, November, 2008) or that “motorists need to be reprogrammed” (School Bus Fleet, p. 21, November, 2008) are analogous to “watch your step” comprising a warning with the clout of, “have a nice day.”

In Part 2 of this series of installments, we will explore some of the many reasons that amber and red flashers alone fail to deter pass-bys, even when these flashers are employed properly.

Publications: School Transportation News.