State by State Variation in Crossing Procedures: Part 5 : Exceptions to Passing

  • While the differences between amber engagement, retrofit requirements and passing rules are, by themselves, dizzying enough, their overlapping and exacerbating complexities are compounded further still by a plethora of exceptions in many states which allow their passing rules to be legally ignored. This discussion does not include the typical and nearly-universal rule that an oncoming vehicle approaching a school bus along a four–lane or greater roadway separated by a median strip or barrier need not stop for a school bus with its flashers engaged on the opposite side of the roadway. However, as noted, differences in wording of regulations in various states makes even the degree of uniformity in this area hard to pin down. Otherwise, among the numerous examples of other exceptions:
  • In quite a few states, school buses (presumably with their flashers engaged) may be passed when they are stopped on "controlled access highways." This is true in Alabama, Indiana, Hawaii, Connecticut, Colorado, Maryland, and possibly several other states that simply do not employ the term "controlled access highway" in their regulatory language on this subject.
  • In Arizona, a bus lane on either side of a two–way left turn lane is not considered a separate roadway. My guess is that this means that if a motorist can even find what this caveat appears to describe, he or she may legally pass a school bus stopped on it.
  • In some states, like Nebraska, the typical "four-lane" minimum for not stopping in the oncoming direction on a divided highway appears not to apply. Instead, for an oncoming vehicle to ignore the flashers of a bus merely stopped in the adjacent oncoming lane, the two lanes must simply be "divided." The inference is that this division involves something more formidable than a double-yellow centerline – although this state’s regulatory language hardly makes this point clear.
  • In Nevada, an enlightened exemption is actually articulated for a scenario in which the passage of the stopped, engaged–flashing school bus is controlled by a traffic officer.
  • New Jersey motorists traveling in the oncoming direction of a divided highway and approaching a stopped school bus with its flashers engaged must slow to a speed of no more than 10 mph. The State compounds this already-impossible mandate by further extending it to "frozen desert trucks" (i.e., ice cream trucks) – a vehicle that New Jersey mythology suggests is commonly chased by school-age children who, as a result, are regularly struck by third-party vehicles.
  • As noted in other installments in this series, New Jersey also pollutes the uniformity landscape by a provision whereby a motorist passing a loading or unloading school bus on any roadway, and traveling in the same direction, need not stop for its red flashers and stop arm at all. Instead, the motorist need merely reduce his or her vehicle’s speed to no more than 10 mph.
  • Expanding inclusions on this subject to its outer limits, Ohio’s regulatory language about exempting vehicles on divided highways makes an effort to include streetcars and trackless trolleys. (For those unaware of it, Cleveland was the first U.S. city to build a high-speed rail system – more than a century ago. Regrettably, the State’s language in this regulation appears not to stray very far from that period.)
  • Celebrating ambiguity, Oregon’s language dilutes the concept of a divided highway by noting that an oncoming vehicle need not stop for a loading or unloading school bus merely "stopped on a different roadway."
  • Some state’s regulations – like those of Rhode Island – actually make a point of clarifying a divided highway for purposes of stopping for loading or unloading school buses by requiring them to contain a median strip. Other states’ regulations employ the term "median barrier." Unfortunately, these barriers are likely implied in other states’ regulatory language that, taken literally, appears to suggest that all that is needed is a double-yellow line, as noted earlier.
  • At the other extreme, South Carolina regulations for this exemption require the bus to be stopped in a passenger loading zone "completely off the main travel lanes and when pedestrians are not allowed to cross the roadway." While the latter portion of this phrase suggests the presence of a physical barrier, and the language actually goes on to cite one ("on highways where the roadways are separated by an earth or raised concrete median"), the phrase "completely off the main travel lanes" must driver interpreters of such regulations loony. One can only feel pity for the poor motorist simultaneously relying on a GPS-oriented navigator when passing this amorphously-positioned bus.
  • The State of Tennessee actually attempts to clarify the term "separate roadway" by defining it as a "roadways divided by an intervening space not suitable to vehicular traffic." Such a definition appears to encompass a vast array of scenarios. But at least they would appear to lie far enough from the stopped bus to not create any crossing problems.
  • Texas adds an interesting and useful clarification to this notion by noting that "a highway is not considered divided if the highway has roadways separated only by a left turn lane." This consideration is actually an important safety consideration that seems to have been overlooked by virtually every other state – unless their regulation-writers simply assumed that this aberration’s (i.e., a left-turn lane) exclusion from the exemption of stopping for a loading or unloading school bus would be obvious to all or most motorists.
  • No sooner did Texas clarify the left-turn lane issue than Utah obscured it by exempting oncoming vehicles from stopping only upon a highway of five of more lanes, "which may include a left-turn lane or two-way left turn lane." (I am curious as to what the latter actually is.)

As a few of these exceptions illustrate, one problem that exacerbates the confusion is the vast array of differences in regulatory wording. Nowhere is this point more clear (or the problem more fuzzy) than with descriptions of divided roadways. As one of the worst examples of obscure wording imaginable, a New Hampshire regulation qualifies the divided highway issue by stating, "but the exemption on a divided highway applies to the opposite direction on its other half only." Huh?

Publications: School Transportation News.