by Tom Burch

Cass County Sheriff

Something that we haven’t seen regularly in several months due to pandemic pauses, variations in scheduling and online learning options is returning to our roadways in a mostly normal way this fall — school buses.

Students who are returning to in-person learning may rely on school buses to get them to and from school safely. We haven’t seen a “normal” school year in a while, and we want to remind you about school bus safety and awareness that they are back on the roads transporting passengers daily.

We have trained professionals operating these buses daily and they need your help to keep transportation safe for the students they are transporting and all others on the roadway as well. School buses are the most regulated vehicles on the road.  They’re designed to be safer than passenger vehicles in preventing crashes and injuries and regulations and stop-arm laws exist to protect children from other motorists. In Minnesota, school buses make at least 10,000 school bus trips daily. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, school buses are the safest mode of transportation for children:  children are eight times safer riding in a bus to school than any other vehicles. (MN Office of Traffic Safety)

If you are driving, remember these simple rules:

• Yellow flashing lights on a school bus mean slow down — don’t speed up — because the bus is preparing to stop. There are likely students waiting to get on the bus or parents waiting nearby to pick up children.

• Red flashing lights mean stop — and wait at least 20 feet behind the bus — because children are getting on or off the school bus. Stay stopped until the red lights stop flashing, the extended stop-arm is withdrawn, and the bus begins moving.

• Even when lights aren’t flashing, watch for children, particularly in the morning or mid-afternoon, around school arrival and dismissal times. Be alert as you back out of a driveway, or drive through a neighborhood, school zone or bus stop.

• Parents — talk bus safety with your children.

Your child should arrive at the bus stop at least 5 minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive. Teach them to play it SAFE:

• Stay five steps away from the curb.

• Always wait until the bus comes to a complete stop and the bus driver signals for you to board.

• Face forward after finding a seat on the bus.

• Exit the bus after it stops and look left-right-left for cars before crossing a street.

When a school bus is stopped and displaying an extended stop-signal arm and flashing red lights, the driver of a vehicle approaching the bus must stop that vehicle at least 20 feet away from the bus and must not allow their vehicle to move until the school bus stop-signal arm is retracted and the red lights are no longer flashing. A driver who violates this provision is guilty of a misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of not less than $500 (nor more than $1,000) and 90 days in jail.

If the driver of a motor vehicle passes or attempts to pass the school bus on the right hand or passenger side of the bus, or if the driver attempts to pass the school bus on either side when a school child is outside of the bus, the driver is guilty of a gross misdemeanor. Gross misdemeanors are punishable by a fine of up to $3,000 and one year in jail.

Not only do these potential maximum penalties exist, but a peace officer may arrest the driver of a motor vehicle who has violated these provisions if there is probable cause to believe a violation has occurred within the past four hours. If the peace officer cannot locate the driver within that timeframe, the officer’s reports are submitted to the County Attorney’s Office and we then process a criminal complaint that requires the person to come to court. Having to come to court for a violation can be a time consuming and expensive process. In addition to criminal penalties, a violation of these provisions can lead to driver’s license suspension or revocation.

The Cass County Sheriff’s Office is committed to improving roadway safety along with protecting the safety of students. Law Enforcement responds to and investigates school bus stop arm violations and takes them very seriously. Let’s work together and be aware that busses are soon to be back on our roadways and be mindful of the passengers that our school bus drivers are transporting daily and to have a safe school year.

If you have specific questions that you would like answered in this column or in person, contact me anytime: e-mail tom.burch@co.cass.mn.us; call (218) 547-1424  or (800) 450-2677; or mail Cass County Sheriff’s Office, 303 Minnesota Ave W, P.O. Box 1119, Walker, MN 56484

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