In June, the last week of school in Duluth, two school buses stopped in the Lakeside neighborhood. The first bus had its red lights flashing, its stop-arm extended, door open and getting ready to unload students when a man driving a Chevy Silverado truck drove right by.
That’s when the driver of the second bus, who witnessed the incident, laid on the horn to get the driver’s attention. It worked. The man stopped at the second bus, “smiled and made a gesture with his hands in a ‘whoops’ motion” before continuing on.
This is just one of thousands of incidents that occur every day all over the country, including in Minnesota. In 2018, 1,052 citations were written in Minnesota for stop-arm violations. That number was 1,099 in 2017 and 1,130 in 2016, according to court records.
Minnesota also participates in the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services’ single day stop-arm violation survey. On a single day, chosen by the state, bus drivers all over the state keep track of stop-arm violations. They keep track of the time of day and whether or not the vehicle passed on the right or left side of the bus.
In Minnesota, about 2,000 bus drivers participate each year. Over the past five years, Minnesota bus drivers have tallied an average of more than 600 violations in a single day. Some of these violations have resulted in some close calls.
In January, a Zumbrota-Mazeppa Elementary School fourth-grader was crossing the road to get on her bus when a driver failed to stop, almost hitting the young girl. The incident was captured on camera, and the driver was charged and convicted in Wabasha County.
A close call in Crow Wing County is what motivated Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan.
Crow Wing County prosecutes stop-arm violations far more often, per capita, than other counties in the region and around the state.
"There's nothing magic about it; I just have zero tolerance with that particular crime," Ryan said. "When we started prosecuting these, we saw our numbers go down quick — one year, we had zero."
Ryan remembered a close call several years ago when a passing car sped past a bus stop sign while kids were on the side of the road — a bus driver's intervention likely saved their lives. "Ever since then, if you do it, you have to admit it and accept your consequences," he said.
In Minnesota, video on school buses that capture a stop-arm violation can be used to prosecute the accused violator.
"Our local school bus companies … have been aggressive at getting the signs with flashing lights. Now some have cameras on the stop sign, and they're recording front and back,” Ryan said. “With good evidence, it's easy to do my job. A lot of credit needs to go to the proactive actions of our school bus companies.”
In Wyoming, it's a state law that all school buses must be equipped with an external video system. That’s not the case for Minnesota.
Some school buses in Minnesota have external cameras, but unfortunately, not very many of them are in St. Louis County.
Duluth Public Schools transportation department manager Steven Johnson said it’s something he’s trying to work on budgetary wise, but it will take time.
“I would say they are worth their weight though,” Johnson said. “At some point, I would like to look at doing a test and get a few of them.”
Currently, if a driver of a vehicle violates a stop-arm, provided everyone is safe, the bus driver will gather as much information about the car as possible and radio it in, Johnson said. “We’ll take all the information and put it down on a form, and then we’ll relay that to the police.”
From there, the police have up to four hours from the time of the incident to locate the driver and vehicle. In Wisconsin, a bus driver has 24 hours to report the incident to law enforcement, who then has 48 hours of receiving the report to issue a citation. In some states around the country, law enforcement has to witness the stop-arm violation for a citation to be issued.
School bus protocol
When motorists come upon a school bus with its red lights flashing and stop-arm extended, vehicles must stop at least 20 feet away when approaching from the rear and from the opposite direction on undivided roads. It’s the law.
Though motorists are not required to stop for a bus if the bus is on the opposite side of a separated roadway, they should still remain alert for children crossing the road, said Minnesota State Patrol Sgt. Neil Dickenson.
“Be aware of your surroundings at all times by putting distractions away,” Dickenson said.
Johnson said before a school stops to drop off or pick up students, it will signal other drivers of the stop by turning on its yellow, or amber, warning lights. Then the bus will come to a stop, check for traffic and open the door. When the door opens, the amber flashers turn to red, and the stop-arm comes out.
Once the students are seated on the bus or off the bus and safely off the road, the bus will close its doors and continue on its route. Once the bus has continued on its route and is no longer loading or unloading students, Johnson said motorists should remain alert.
“Sometimes even after we let them off and we continue to drive, some kids change their mind about where they’re going and cross a street anyways,” he said. “People have to be extra cautious around where buses are picking up and dropping off kids."
Dickenson said the best way for motorists to be safe around school buses is to plan ahead.
“If you know a certain time that school buses are going to be there, alter your route so you're not going to be around and have to stop for it all the time, and don't be late,” he said. “The people that we see violating this are late for work or they are in a hurry to get somewhere.”
Students should be alert
In Hennepin County, law enforcement has issued 607 stop-arm violation citations from 2016 to 2018, one of the highest in the state those years, with 385 ending in a conviction.
Agent Antoine Berryman, City of Minneapolis Police Department school safety patrol coordinator, trains students each year on bus safety, including how to get off and on a bus safely.
Berryman said he trains about 1,400 students each year in 49 schools. He trains the crossing guard patrol and the bus safety patrol. These students learn how to properly tend a school crosswalk and how to open up all of the emergency exits on a bus.
Some of his students even attend the Legionville School Safety Patrol Training Center in the summer.
To help keep students safe, Berryman said last school year, he added a new rule for his bus patrol students.
“When students are dropped off at an intersection, the new rule is a bus patrol student on the bus will get off the bus and help escort younger kids across the street to the person waiting to receive them,” Berryman said.
Berryman said he added a new rule as an extra safety precaution.
“Some drivers are distracted like crazy,” he said. “We don’t want anybody getting killed.”
Dickenson said students should always be alert and pay attention when getting off and on a bus, because they can’t always trust people will stop.
“Parents can teach their kids and talk to them about always making eye contact with drivers on the road before crossing a street,” he said. “Also, look at their bus driver because they are going to wave the kids along when it’s safe.”
Dickenson also suggests students should always put down their cellphones or other electronic devices when loading or unloading on the bus.
“Parents should talk to their kids about paying attention and not being distracted themselves,” Dickenson said.
Former News Tribune reporter Brooks Johnson contributed to this report.