Turns Out We Don't Know Our School Bus Laws Very Well

A recent study by CUTR for the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) indicates that a large number of motorists have limited understanding of the laws governing passing of school buses that are stopped to load and unload passengers. Results of a survey conducted in 1996 indicated that approximately 10,600 motorists could be expected to illegally pass stopped school buses in Florida during a typical school day, or about 1.9 million illegal passes during a typical school year.

This alarming number raises several broad and important issues about motorists in Florida. First, how well do they understand school bus signalizations and traffic signage, and second, how well do they understand the state's traffic laws? Clearly, without thorough understanding, the potential for accidents is greatly increased and may ultimately result in injuries or death to school children.

In 1995, FDOE began an intensive effort to reduce the number of motorists illegally passing stopped school buses in Florida's 67 school districts. As a first step, CUTR completed the 1996 survey to determine the number of illegal passes of stopped school buses that could be expected to occur during a typical school day. The current study was conducted to determine comprehension of the school bus stop law and to make recommendations for remedying associated problems.

Measuring Motorist Comprehension

To gain a better understanding of motorists' knowledge of Florida's law and of school bus signalizations, the study was devised to answer the following two questions:

  • Do motorists in Florida understand their responsibilities as defined in Section 316.172, F.S. (the "school bus stop law")?
  • Do motorists in Florida comprehend the meaning of the various signalizations used on school buses to communicate to them that a school bus is either coming to a stop or is stopped for the express purpose of loading or unloading children?

To answer these two questions, a simple, one-page, 18-question survey (in both English and Spanish) was developed. Respondents were asked to indicate whether statements about driving scenarios involving school buses displaying different types of signalization and stopping on various road configurations were "true" or "false" (see box). Other questions inquired about the respondents' demographic and socio-economic traits, such as age, gender, and ethnic heritage, as well as aspects of their travel behavior, such as the number of miles driven per year and the number of school buses encountered during a normal day of travel.

The survey was administered over a three-day period by office staff to all visitors of legal driving age at a random sample of 30 out of the possible 140 driver license examining offices in both urban and rural areas in Florida. A total of 4,540 motorists of various ages, driving experience, and occupations completed the survey.

Results

Based on the sample data, the study found significant confusion on the part of respondents regarding their driving responsibilities related to the school bus stop law, as well as significant confusion about school bus signalizations. The amount of respondent confusion ranged from a low of 14 percent for scenario 1 to a high of 91 percent for scenario 5.

The results indicate that some driving situations involving whether or not to stop for school buses present more of a problem for respondents than other situations. Drivers indicated the least amount of confusion in scenario 1, the most basic situation drivers are likely to encounter (a school bus stopping on a two-lane roadway). Even so, approximately 14 percent of the respondents gave an incorrect response.

Alarmingly, this scenario represents the highest incidence of illegal passes, as documented by CUTR's illegal passing study. This finding suggests that, while many motorists clearly do not understand the law as it applies to this situation, many more motorists are, in fact, intentionally violating the law.

Survey results indicated that scenario 5 ("When a school bus stops to load children, all vehicles that are required to stop must remain stopped until all of the children have boarded the school bus") evoked the most confusion by respondents in the sample. The Florida Driver's Handbook states that, "[Drivers] must remain stopped until all children are clear of the roadway andthe bus signal has been withdrawn" [emphasis added]. More than 90 percent of respondents responded incorrectly. (It should be noted, however, that this high percentage may have been caused by respondents misinterpreting the question's intent. Specifically, the wording of this question may have implied that the bus signals were withdrawn simultaneously with the last student boarding the school bus. Therefore, some caution is urged when interpreting the results for this question.)

Other scenarios, particularly those related to multi-lane roadways, also evoked significant confusion on the part of respondents. The Florida Driver's Handbook states, "If the highway is divided by a raised barrier or an unpaved median at least five feet wide, you do not have to stop if you are moving in the opposite direction of the [school] bus. Painted lines or pavement markings are not considered to be barriers." Based on the responses, about 45 percent of the respondents displayed confusion about stopping in situations where a school bus traveling in the opposite direction is stopped on a multi-lane roadway with painted pavement markings indicating a two-way center left-turn lane.

Nearly 18 percent of the respondents indicated similar confusion about stopping for school buses on multi-lane roadways separated by some type of raised barrier, and nearly 40 percent indicated confusion related to multi-lane roadways separated by unpaved medians. Based on the sample data, motorists are clearly uncertain when to stop for school buses on multi-lane roadways.

A Need for Education and Enforcement

The results suggest that the knowledge of drivers in Florida regarding their responsibilities as defined in the school bus stop law is significantly lacking. Clearly, a key direction for improving driver knowledge of the school bus stop law and the meaning of the various school bus signalizations is driver education. Driver education about the school bus stop law can take many forms, including airing Public Service Announcements (PSAs) and placing information in automobile license tag renewal notices and rental car contract signoffs and on billboards.

The study also recommends that additional questions on stopping for school buses be added to driver license examinations and that the period of time between required driver license renewals (currently 4 years) for non-conviction-free motorists be reduced.

Another key avenue for improving driver knowledge of the school bus law is through enforcement. Efforts should be made to amend the school bus stop law to include tougher penalties for violation, such as increased points and fines and the possibility of performing community service and/or serving jail time for repeat offenders. In addition, steps should [Cont. from 3] be taken to promote the need for targeted enforcement throughout the statewide law enforcement community to include periodic "enforcement blitzes" and other enforcement strategies.

Engineering Countermeasures

The study also recommends that the Florida DOT provide highway signage at areas around stops that advise local motorists that school buses make frequent stops in the area and that they are required, by law, to stop for school buses. In addition, the fine for violation of the law should also be shown on the signs to reinforce the message to motorists.

School districts also should evaluate their routes and the location of their school bus stops to determine if changes can be made to redirect routes/relocate school bus stops to roadways with lower incidences of illegal passes.

"This study proves that many people just don't understand Florida's law," said Charlie Hood, Director of the School Transportation Management Section of the Florida Department of Education. "The study will help state and local agencies such as ours 'get the word out' to drivers on when they must stop for school buses. Improved safety for school children will be the result."

The survey clearly indicates that the safety of children boarding and alighting school buses is being compromised by drivers who lack knowledge of the school bus stop law—or are ignoring it. Increased education, enforcement, and engineering countermeasures are the first steps in guaranteeing that safety.

For further information, contact CUTR Research Associate Michael Baltes atbaltes@cutr.usf.edu, (813) 974-3120.

How Well Do You Know the Law?

(True or False--see answers below)Scenario 1: When a school bus stops to unload children on a two-lane roadway, only vehicles traveling in the same direction as the school bus are required to stop.

Scenario 2: When a school bus stops to load children on a four-lane roadway that has a center lane used for left turns by drivers from either direction, vehicles traveling in the opposite direction on the other side of the roadway as the school bus are not required to stop.

Scenario 3: When a school bus stops to unload children on a four-lane roadway that is divided by a raised concrete barrier, only vehicles traveling in the same direction as the school bus are required to stop.

Scenario 4: When a school bus stops to load children on a four-lane roadway divided by an unpaved median at least five feet wide, vehicles traveling in the opposite direction on the other side of the roadway as the school bus are not required to stop.

Scenario 5: When a school bus stops to load children, all vehicles that are required to stop must remain stopped until all of the children have boarded the school bus.

Scenario 6: When a school bus is displaying yellow flashing warning lights, vehicles traveling in both directions on a two-lane roadway are required to stop.

Answers to "How Well Do You Know the Law?"

  1. False—All vehicles must stop on a two-lane roadway.
  2. False—All vehicles must stop because the roadway is not divided by an unpaved median at least five feet wide or a raised barrier.
  3. True.
  4. True.
  5. False—All vehicles must remain stopped until all bus signals have been withdrawn.
  6. False—Vehicles are required to stop only when red flashing lights are displayed. Yellow flashing lights indicate that the bus is slowing to make a stop.

Survey Results

Scenario

Answered Correctly

(%)

Answered Incorrectly

(%)

1

85.6

14.4

2

55.8

44.2

3

82.2

17.8

4

60.2

39.8

5

9.5

90.5

6

31.9

68.1

Florida's School Bus Stop Law

  1. (from the 1996 Florida Driver's Handbook)
  2. On a two-way street or highway, all drivers moving in either direction must stop for a stopped school bus which is picking up or dropping off children. You must remain stopped until all children are clear of the roadway and the bus signal has been withdrawn.
  3. If the highway is divided by a raised barrier or an unpaved median at least five feet wide, you do not have to stop if you are moving in the opposite direction of the bus. Painted lines or pavement markings are not considered to be barriers. If you are moving in the same direction as the bus, you must always stop—and not go forward until the bus signal has been withdrawn.

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