Education

How often do Kansas drivers break the law to get around stopped school buses?

It’s time to be alert around school buses

The Wichita Police Department offers tips for drivers when they see school buses. It's illegal in the United States to pass a school bus when it's stopped to unload or load children. (2017)
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The Wichita Police Department offers tips for drivers when they see school buses. It's illegal in the United States to pass a school bus when it's stopped to unload or load children. (2017)

How often do Kansas drivers break the law to get around stopped school buses?

Dangerously often, according to a new survey conducted by the Kansas Department of Education at the request of the Kansas Highway Patrol.

The survey, conducted earlier this year, showed nearly 10,000 violations over 30 school days. About two-thirds of the offenses – more than 6,800 – happened in Wichita, the state’s largest school district.

“This has been a problem for years,” said Fabian Armendariz, director of transportation for Wichita schools. “When we saw the numbers, we weren’t surprised.”

Fifty-seven Kansas school districts volunteered for the project, which took place between January and March. Data was self-reported by districts, and some participated for only part of the study, so the results are not statistically valid.

Nevertheless, officials said, the project helped illustrate a widespread and dangerous problem.

“It only takes a second for tragedy to occur,” said Randy Watson, Kansas commissioner of education.

“The results of this survey are an important reminder that we all need to slow down, put down the cell phones and pay attention. Nothing is more important than protecting the lives of our children.”

State law requires drivers traveling in either direction to come to a stop when a school bus displays its stop signal and flashes red lights. Motorists are not supposed to proceed until the lights stop and the signal arm is withdrawn.

If you’re caught passing a bus with its stop sign out, the fine could be $300 or more.

Aremendariz, Wichita’s transportation director, said the district participates each year in a one-day violation count in April.

In both surveys, bus drivers logged violations observed during their regular routes, noting the type of roadway (city, county or highway), the time of day, and whether the offending motorist approached from the front or rear of the bus.

Of the total 9,967 violations, 98 percent occurred on the left side of the bus. The remaining two percent happened on the right, where students board and exit.

Nearly three-fourths of the violating vehicles passed from the front of the bus.

According to state law, motorists approaching a school bus from the opposite direction are required to stop unless they are on a divided highway with median separation.

“It’s important to educate the public, because every single one of these instances could turn into a tragedy,” Armendariz said.

“The biggest thing is reminding the public that that stop sign comes out for a reason, because children are loading or unloading the bus. … It’s important to stop and be aware of students who may be crossing the road.”

If bus drivers notice repeat offenses in a particular area, the district’s security team alerts Wichita police, Armendariz said. Concentrated enforcement and a stronger police presence often slows down the problem.

“But it’s kind of like putting a band-aid on a big wound,” he said.

Armendariz said he hopes the survey reminds drivers that “stop means stop,” and to pay careful attention whenever a school bus is in sight.

“We realize people are in a hurry, but …safety should be everyone’s No. 1 priority.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias

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