MARYLAND — The school year starts Sept. 3 for most Maryland school districts, so it's time for drivers to review the rules of the road as school buses and students return to the streets and mix with traffic. During a six-month period from August 2018 to March 2019, 12 children were killed and another 47 were injured while getting on and off school buses nationwide.
Bus stop-arms were extended at the time, which means that in Maryland and the 49 other states, drivers were required to come to a full stop. There are some differences in the state law. Maryland's law requires: If a school vehicle has stopped on a road and is operating the alternately flashing red lights, the driver of any vehicle following or approaching the school bust must stop at least 20 feet from the front or rear of the school vehicle, depending on the direction of travel. Drivers following or approaching the school bus may not proceed until the school vehicle moves or the flashing red lights are deactivated. This does not apply to the driver of a vehicle on a physically divided highway.
AAA Mid-Atlantic says that last year, 133 pedestrians were killed in Maryland and 214 school-aged children were injured while walking during school arrival and dismissal times.
New this year is a state law that imposes an increased maximum penalty of $500 for drivers caught on school bus stop-arm cameras failing to stop for buses with red lights flashing that are loading or unloading children. According to a one-day survey of bus drivers conducted by the Maryland State Department of Education in April 2018, there were 3,812 incidents involving vehicles passing a stopped school bus with its flashing red lights illuminated. In Maryland, at least four counties use automated stop-arm cameras.
Maryland law requires drivers to stop for school buses when the buses engage flashing red lights. Drivers may not be able to see every child who gets off of a bus so proceed slowly until you are clear of the bus and pedestrians. The law also requires drivers to yield (stop) for pedestrians who are in a crosswalk.
When it comes to buses, school zones and safety, some of the biggest concerns happen when cars and buses aren't even moving. Kids run the greatest risk of being hurt when they're walking up to or getting off a bus, according to Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration. While an average of seven students are killed in school bus crashes each year, 19 are killed getting on and off the bus.
Most of those killed are children between ages 5 and 7 who are hit in what the state agency ominously calls the "Danger Zone" around the bus, either by a passing vehicle or by the school bus itself. It's illegal for a vehicle to pass a bus with its red lights flashing.
Children are most likely to be hit because they:
- Hurry to get on or off the bus
- Act before they think and have little experience with traffic
- Assume drivers will see them and will wait for them to cross
- Don't always stay within the bus driver's sight
- Drop something as they get off the bus and run into the path of the bus to pick it up
Courtesy Department of Transportation
The Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration reminds pedestrians and drivers to:
• Use sidewalks and marked crosswalks whenever possible.
• Press the pedestrian signal button and wait for the walk signal.
• Always stop at the curb and look left, right and left again before crossing a street.
• Watch for cars turning in or leaving driveways.
• Walk, don't run across the street.
• Wear light or bright colored clothing.
• Pay attention -- take off headphones while walking and no texting or playing games.
• Always stop for pedestrians.
• Obey traffic signs, signals and markings.
• Observe posted speed limits. Speeding only makes it more difficult to stop for pedestrians.
• Keep your eyes on the road. It's illegal to use a handheld phone/devise or text while driving.
• When a school bus stops, the flashing red lights go on and the stop sign flaps come out, drivers in BOTH directions are required to stop. This is the most dangerous time as children getting on or off the bus.
• It is against the law to pass a stopped school bus with its flashing red lights activated and stop arm extended.
The potential for fatal and injury accidents exists every day, according to the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.
States are taking various approaches to the problem. For example, 22 states have now passed stop-arm camera laws to catch drivers who pass school buses when they're stopped to pick up or let off children. They include Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.
"There are a multitude of options out there," National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services President Michael LaRocco told School Transportation News last year. "There's not one silver bullet out there, other than the simplest silver bullet — motorists need to pay attention to what's going on around them."
Research shows that driver distraction, especially with increased cellphone use, creates hazards on the road. But students are distracted, too, and don't always pay attention to traffic before they cross the road, sometimes because they're listening to music through earbuds or headphones.