What is WA’s law for stopping for school buses when the lights are flashing

Question: If a northbound school bus on a four lane highway stops to drop off children before an intersection and I am traveling south and intend to turn west do I have a stop for the bus? What if it’s raining and I’m parallel to the train tracks? And how many third graders does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: OK, no one sent this question, but I got a lot of weirdly specific questions about school bus overtaking. However, they all fall into the “I’m confused” or “other drivers are confused” categories. Let’s try to clear up some of this confusion.

The first sentence of the relevant law states that a driver passing or passing a school bus that is stopped to drop off or pick up students and has activated a “visual signal” (flashing red lights and stop sign) “shall stop the vehicle before reaching such a bus….” This is the default. You stop for the bus. There are two exceptions, which we will come to in a moment.

First of all, I want to know what do “surpass” and “meet” mean? They are not defined in the law, but ‘overtaking’ is used when one vehicle passes another in the same direction, while ‘meeting’ is used when vehicles pass each other in the opposite direction. Why is this important? The law applies to vehicles that “overtake or pass” a school bus.

Imagine that you are approaching an intersection and to your left is a bus with its visual signals to drop off children. Of your three options for crossing the intersection, only a left turn would trigger an “encounter” with the bus, so if you are going that direction you must stop until the lights and sign are out and gone . If you are going straight ahead or turning right, you are not overtaking the bus, so this law would not be relevant.

You may need to stop for other reasons, such as children crossing the street. Even if the bus law does not apply, others might, such as one which states that drivers, “shall exercise caution to avoid colliding with a pedestrian on any carriageway.. ..” What I mean here is that this is not a binary decision. Multiple factors influence what is a safe and legal maneuver on the road.

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A car slows down as it approaches a school bus stopped near an intersection in Bellingham, Washington. Personal The Bellingham Herald

And now for exceptions to the stop requirement for school buses: 1) Driving in the opposite direction of the bus on a highway divided into separate carriageways. If the road has a barrier or median at least 18 inches wide, you do not need to stop. You don’t need to issue a rule, but the separation should make it obvious that no vehicles should cross. 2) Driving in the opposite direction on a road with three or more lanes.

What if there are four lanes in the same direction? Not an exception. What if I’m really late for work? Certainly not an exception. And maybe work on your time management skills. What happens if the bus is pulled off the road? OK, you got me. This is not exactly an exception, but if the bus driver has only activated the hazard warning lights rather than the “visual signal”, he is allowed to pass. The law only allows a bus driver to do so if none of the children being dropped off need to cross the street.

What if we were in galactic hypertubes? I don’t know what it is, but when it comes to overtaking a school bus, this is no exception. And to answer the last question: Changing a light bulb? It’s an LED, Grandpa. I’ll be in college before it runs out.

Doug Dahl, Head of Communications at Target Zero, answers questions about traffic laws, safe driving habits and general policing practices every Monday.

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