School buses are ubiquitous in northern Illinois. For parents, they're key to getting children to school, and for everyone, they're a significant presence on the road. Brian Scott is Terminal Manager for the buses at Rockford Public Schools. He says it's important for drivers to obey the stop sign that swings out when the buses are unloading children.
"If you are on a two-lane road and you are trailing a school bus or approaching a school bus, all traffic needs to stop when that stop sign comes out," he said.
That same rule applies on one-way roads of any size. But Scott says it's a little more complicated if you have regular roads with four or more lanes.
"So a four-lane road, if you're approaching the bus, you may proceed," he said. "If you're following the bus, you still need to stop."
What may be confusing is that a road like this needs to be divided in some way. A common example is a concrete median separating the two flows of traffic. But the rule also applies if the division is simply a center lane with stripes indicating nobody can drive on it, or even a shared middle turn lane. Trooper Aldo Schumann of the Illinois State Police says confusion over this rule can be a traffic hazard. He uses the example of a school bus going north on one of these roads and then stopping.
"Traffic stops from the northbound side. You look at the southbound side, some people are unsure, so now what happens, people start to brake," he said. "They go, they stop again. Could be a fender bender, a quick rear-end collision. People start looking on the opposite way and the other vehicle in front of them stops, and now we have a fender bender."
And even when people follow the rules correctly, Jason Calloway of bus contractor First Student in DeKalb says problems still arise. He recalls an incident when a bus was unloading students on a neighborhood street.
"The first car did what they were supposed to do: stop. The second car didn't and they rear-ended right next to the bus," he said. "If they would have hit the bus, kids getting on and off the bus would have been injured."
Stop-arm violations are a serious problem across the country. The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services surveyed 38 states and D.C. to track how many times cars blew past stopped school buses in a single day. More than 4,700 Illinois bus drivers reported 2.373 violations on a single day in May. Trooper Schumann says local police depend on reports by the bus drivers to catch these violators.
"As long as they have at least the make, model, license plate number of the vehicle, the local agency or the respective agency will handle it as they see fit," he said.
When a suspect is caught, Schumann says the penalties can be severe.
"There's fines associated with it. There's also a risk of the license being suspended for up to three months," he said.
These fines range from $150 for the first offense to $500 or more for further violations. But beyond those who run bus stop signs, Calloway says it's important to stay alert for kids crossing the street.
"Be on the lookout for kids, especially now, because kids are getting back into their routine. Some of them are getting transitioned from the summertime to the school time hours. So they may be running late. They may be running to the bus," he said.
Trooper Schumann adds that the main way to avoid these issues is to avoid distracted driving.
"If you see a bus, kind of be prepared that this bus is going to make a stop or be turning," he said. "So stay off the electronics and pay attention to your surroundings."
School transportation officials and police agree that staying alert around school buses, watching out for children crossing, and respecting school bus stop signs will help ensure students are safe during the school year.