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Motorists bypass school bus laws

"A big yellow school bus with a stop sign sticking out the side and red lights flashing is a pretty clear image out on the road. It's a sure sign to be cautious and to stop, right?Well, for some Whidbey drivers it may not be obvious enough.The head of the Oak Harbor School District's school bus fleet says too many drivers either don't understand the traffic laws about passing school buses or just ignore them.Since the school year began four months ago, there have been 36 reported cases of North Whidbey motorists driving around a bus illegally. Infractions have been reported on every one of the district's 18 routes. So far, no one has been injured but the risk is great said Vonnie Edwards, transportation director for the Oak Harbor School District.Those are just the ones the drivers can identify, Edwards said, pointing out that some violators come around so fast that the bus drivers can't get a license number or identify the vehicle.Jim Covert, a traffic motor officer with the Oak Harbor Police Department, said the school bus law is unique because it does not require that an officer be present at the time of the infraction. School bus drivers or other witnesses can report violators directly to the police, who then have 10 days to follow up with a citation.The fine for a passing violation has more than doubled in the last three years. It now stand at $309 said Covert.Edwards said the law is basically very simple.Yellow lights mean the bus driver is going to put on their reds and red lights mean stop, she said. There's a lot of warning.The rules bus drivers are taught to follow call for them to turn on their yellow lights 100 to 300 feet before a stop if they are traveling less than 35 mph and 300 to 500 feet in excess of 35 mph.Both Covert and Edwards attribute many of the infractions to people being in a hurry. They say that's a poor reason for putting a child's life in danger.You could have a kid running down a driveway trying to catch the bus and not looking left or right and running right into the road, said Edwards. When a bus comes to a stop and puts on the red lights it means there is a child coming to or getting off the bus. You have to be aware of that.Edwards said she has even heard reports of motorists using the shoulder to pass school buses on the right. Covert said anyone caught passing a school bus on the right could also be charged with reckless driving, a more serious offense.There are circumstances when knowing what to do around a school bus can be confusing. On a regular two-lane road, cars approaching a stopped school bus from either direction must stop. But on a two-lane road with a full, two-way turn lane down the middle, slowing and stopping is not necessary for vehicles that approach from the opposite direction on a roadway. Any traffic behind the bus, however, is required to stop and stay stopped until the bus turns off its warning signals. Vehicles behind the bus cannot use the center turn lane to pass.Edwards admits that driving behind a school bus can be frustrating at times but she said district drivers try to be accommodating.They all know not to hold up traffic too long. If there is an area where they can pull off they do, she said. Edwards asks drivers to be a little patient and extra careful around school buses. She said the consequences of impatience can be deadly.It's a chronic problem. I hesitate to say it's getting worse, but it's not getting any better, she said.---------------BUS RULESAccording to Washington state law, these are the rules for overtaking or meeting a school bus:If the bus is stopped: It will flash red lights and a side-mounted stop sign. On a two-lane road, drivers approaching from either direction must stop and wait until the bus turns its warning signals off. If there is a center lane - for example, a two-way turn lane, oncoming drivers don't have to stop. That's also true on divided roadways.Approaching from behind: Passing a school bus from behind when it's stopped on the roadway with red lights flashing is illegal. You can pass the bus with caution if it has pulled fully off the roadway and does not have its red warning signals activated. "

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