Flashers, Signals and Recognition: Part 3

To a school bus professional at any level, the importance of red flashers and stop arms is beyond intuitive; it is primeval. But is it dangerously naïve to assume that motorists, parents and students think likewise. In thinking about this enigma, it is also important to recognize that, particularly in rural areas, two-color traffic lights are common. But in most cases, these traffic signals’ colors are red and green – not red and amber. Never having even seen such a traffic signal, many urban and suburban motorists approaching a traffic light containing only red and amber lights may have no idea about how to respond to it: Does the amber signal mean caution? Does the red signal mean stop – or merely exercise more caution? When stopped by the red signal, how long will the stopped motorist have to wait? What distinguishes this set (when there even is a set) of signals from those of numerous other types of vehicles? Conversely, to what degree do procedures associated with those vehicles blur the responsibilities of stopping for a flashing school bus? And what about states with anomalies – like New Jersey, where flashers need not be engaged on school grounds, and elsewhere, after stopping for a school bus, approaching motorists can pass it at a speed of no greater than 10 mph?

One of these problems revealed by one crossing-related lawsuit after another is that, when confronted with a red signal in a structure not containing a green light, motorists do not know how long they will be expected to remain stopped, and have no reasonable expectations of when they will be allowed to proceed. The preponderance of non-school buses with four-way flashers helps to reinforce this concern since, in most states, these flashers are engaged both when the bus is moving and after it has stopped. So while motorists might be willing to stop for a minute or so – for example, to permit a schoolchild to cross to or from his or her bus – they are not willing to remain stopped indefinitely. So if a student does not emerge from in front of the bus quickly, the motorist’s attention span will wane – if that motorist even stopped at all. (Many simply slow down and pass the bus cautiously.) Worse, noticing the flasher and not the school bus (which means the flasher could be engaged by any one of a variety of special vehicles) – a particularly-common nighttime phenomenon – some motorists cruise by the vehicle to avoid the indefinite delay they might experience being “trapped by these signals.” The vacuum of enforcement tends to make such behavior risk-free – until, of course, the motorist strikes down a crossing schoolchild.

Removing Ambiguity

The key to addressing all these problems, and to raising the status of a school bus’ moving traffic signal to that of a conventional traffic light, is to equip the school bus with a red, amber and green flasher at each corner of the bus – in other words, installing a twelve-way flasher system. Noting the unengaged green signal alongside the others, motorists confronting an engaged a red signal will expect to be delayed for only a short period of time. So they will not as likely ignore the red one for fear of being stranded indefinitely by its continued engagement. Further, the ambiguities associated with both amber and red signals (on school buses) will largely dissolve as the responses to the three signal colors will now resemble the responses that motorists are accustomed to making (even subconsciously) when confronting these same three colors at a conventional, three-colored traffic light. Further still, following a bus with green lights on will generate more meaning when these lights turn to amber – a signal many motorists otherwise ignore completely, and which sometimes is similarly echoed when the amber signals eventually turn to red.

The addition of a separate green light mounted to the side of the bus (over the driver’s window and at the top of the front door) to the equation will also help clarify crossing rules for both students and their parents. This complete set of (presumably) shielded lights with the word “cross” embedded in the green light’s surface (so that motorists do not interpret them as signals to move forward) aimed only at crossing pedestrians (and their parents) will reduce the tendency to interpret the engagement of the red flasher as the school bus’ signal for the student(s) to enter the roadway. This third new technology, and its obvious advantages and benefits, will be discussed in a different, future article. But its enhancement of the benefits from the transition to a 12-way system must be recognized and appreciated.

Part 4, the final segment of this series, will examine the financial and institutional aspects of the transition recommended by this author.

Publications: School Transportation News.