National School Bus Safety Week is the third week in October, so now is the perfect time to remind yourself of best practices to maneuver safely around the school buses in your neighborhood. According to the National School Transportation Association, there are 480,000 of those big yellow buses on American roads, making school buses the biggest transportation fleet in the country. With these numbers, you're practically guaranteed to cross paths with a school bus on your morning or afternoon commute — even if you're not driving in a school zone.
But do you know how to safely share the road with a school bus? Because riders are children, there are special laws in place to help protect these vulnerable passengers. While the specifics vary from state to state, the basics of school bus safety are the same wherever you go. Here's what you need to know.
Maintain a Safe Following Distance
When driving during the school year, you're likely to end up behind a bus at some point. When you do, it's important to maintain your following distance. The National Safety Council recommends a three-second following distance. That means if the bus in front of you passes a street sign, you should be able to count to three seconds before you pass it.
A longer following distance gives you greater reaction time. This is especially important when you're behind a school bus since they stop often. It's also hard to see around large school buses, so the extra time will help you take any unexpected movements or obstacles in stride.
Do Not Pass
Driving behind a bus can be frustrating, especially if you're running late. However, in nearly all circumstances and in all fifty states, it is illegal to pass a school bus when its lights are flashing. This is to keep children safe as they board or get off the bus at their stop.
School buses come equipped with several signals to drivers, including:
Yellow flashing lights: This means the bus is slowing down and is ready to stop to pick up or drop off students. You may not have time to pass, so slow down instead and leave significant space between your vehicle and the bus when you do stop.
Red flashing lights: This means the bus is stopped. You may not pass a stopped school bus.
Stop sign: Most school buses are also equipped with a stop sign on their left side, which opens when the bus comes to a stop. This is a supplement to the red flashing lights and means that you must not pass the bus.
These signals also prohibit passing when you are facing a bus in oncoming traffic. Even if you are in a lane traveling in the opposite direction, you must still stop and wait for the bus to turn off its lights and resume travel before you can pass the school bus.
In most states, you do not have to stop for a school bus on the opposite side of a divided highway. If you're not sure about your state's laws, it's a good idea to check with your local DMV for updated rules about school buses.
When Can You Pass a School Bus?
When a school bus does not have its flashing lights on, you may pass it on the road when it is safe to do so and as long as you are following all posted traffic laws. For example, be sure that you are in a legal passing zone and have sufficient space if attempting to pass a bus on a single-lane road. When in doubt, stay patient and maintain your following distance. Putting children in danger to get a few feet ahead of a school bus is never worth the risk.