Why drivers ignore school bus traffic rules; what Utahns can do about it

Nov 7, 2023, 1:19 PM | Updated: 1:27 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Marcus Swainston has been driving a bus for the past decade. Junior high, elementary, you name it.

Currently, Swainston is working for Jordan School District, shuttling 86 children to and from school daily, and he seems to enjoy his work. He even lets the students choose what color of hair he has.

“You really get this relationship built with these children, and they become just like yours,” he said.

For Swainston, who cares greatly about getting students to and from school safely, becomes concerned about nearby drivers every time he makes a stop. Even though the bus displays flashing lights, and multiple stop signs, he says it’s often not enough.

“They’ll just blow right through them. And that’s scary because that’s when we’re dealing with the most precious cargo — the children,” Swainston said.

Each year Utah school bus drivers participate in a one-day study documenting these “stop arm” moving violations. This past Spring in a single day, 747 vehicles passed school buses that were stopped on the road, lights flashing, stop sign fully extended.

14 of those violations were on the right side of the bus where the students get off and on. Based on those results, the study projects that about 133 thousand violations per year.

Jordan School District director of transportation, Paul Bergera, believes drivers violate the school bus stop arm rules for three main reasons.

“I think people are in a hurry, people are distracted, and people don’t know the rules,” he said.

Impatient and distracted drivers are a large part of the problem, but Bergera highlighted one thing that absolutely everybody licensed to operate a vehicle should know: when to stop for a school bus.

The rules for a two- or four-lane road with no median, both directions of traffic are required to stop immediately at the stop arm and flashing lights of a school bus.

Example of protocol on a two- or four-lane road with no median. (KSL TV)

Example of protocol on a two- or four-lane road with no median. (KSL TV)

On a divided road or highway, all lanes of traffic on the same side of the median as the stopped bus must also stop. However, all other lanes on the other side of the median can proceed as normal.

An example of traffic rules on a divided highway when a school bus makes a stop. (KSL TV)

An example of traffic rules on a divided highway when a school bus makes a stop. (KSL TV)

Perhaps the scenario that confuses drivers the most is when there’s a five lane roadway, with a “suicide lane” or a turn lane in the middle. If the bus makes a stop with flashing lights, the drivers in the two lanes behind it need to stop. Traffic on the other side of the turn lane though, can proceed.

Example of a school bus top on a 5-lane roadway. (KSL TV)

Example of a school bus top on a 5-lane roadway. (KSL TV)

When in doubt though, Sgt. Eric Anderson with South Jordan Police advises to “just stop,” he said. “That’s the best case scenario.”

Anderson said that in his time with the SJPD, most drivers stop for school busses. Statewide though, for these annual single-day surveys, violations have actually been trending down since 2018. Back then, results in a single day were pushing more than 1 thousand.

Despite the drop in violations, Anderson said the new cameras implemented on school busses are a huge help for law enforcement.

“The information is really good for us to use in our investigations, and we’ve been able to track people down,” Anderson said.

While the cameras are helping, Swainston is still hoping violators will become better educated for the sake of his students onboard.

“Sometimes I joke that I wish I had deployable spike strips that would come out from the bus,” he laughed. “We want them to get home safe, that’s our number one priority and our job.”

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Why drivers ignore school bus traffic rules; what Utahns can do about it