Q: When a white van with "school students' written on the rear is unloading students, what are the rules for passing? Is that an official school bus?
— Regina Boose, Earl Township, Berks County
A: It's a good time of the year to review the requirements for motorists encountering school buses, Regina, and you raise an interesting question in this regard that hadn't occurred to me.
Do the vans we see on occasion that lack the familiar yellow hue, flashing-red lights and mechanical stop-sign arms, but that bear placards indicating "school students," qualify as official school buses subject to the applicable safety regulations — notably the absolute prohibition on passing stopped buses while students board or disembark?
The answer is, they do not qualify as school buses. Rather, under Pennsylvania law, they are classified as school vehicles. You are not prohibited by law from passing the kind of van you describe.
However, Pennsylvania School Bus Association Executive Director Selina Pittenger stressed that, no matter the law, motorists who come upon loading or unloading school vehicles should take common-sense precautions, slowing their vehicles, and if they pass at all, doing so very carefully. It's obvious that young kids are likely to be around. Unlike school buses, school vehicles should pull as far as possible to the right to load or unload.
The key to the distinction between a school bus and a school vehicle is the rated passenger capacity of the vehicle.
The first-grade lesson: A school bus is a motor vehicle for the transportation of specified students, designed to carry 11 or more passengers including the driver. A school vehicle serves the same function, but with a capacity of 10 or fewer such passengers, according to the state Vehicle Code.
Pre-primary, primary or secondary school students attending public, private or parochial schools are covered. A school is defined as an institution for the education or training of children, including kindergartens, rehabilitation or day-care centers, Head Start centers and summer camps, according to PennDOT.
That pretty much covers it all, as far as I can determine. (I'm not sure how summer camps got in there, but that's another matter.)
There's also a sub-class of school bus defined as Multifunction School Activity Bus. This consists of school buses utilized "to transport students on field trips, athletic trips, or other curricular or extracurricular activities, but not used for home-to-school or school-to-home transportation," according to PennDOT.
The band bus or the football- or soccer-team buses qualify as MFSABs. So the same vehicle can be one or the other, depending on usage.
The band bus, for example, takes band members from their "home" school to the "away" school for the band's halftime performance, and returns the musicians to their home school, not home to mom and dad.
School buses must be painted National School Bus Yellow and have the requisite flashing-red lights and stop-sign extension devices. (I should have surmised the existence of a standard hue for the entire country, but hadn't thought of it). The ban on passing a stopped school bus applies when the devices are activated; an exemption is made for vehicles on the opposite side of a divided highway (separated by a physical median barrier; the surface-level ridged or grooved dividers don't count).
The Legislature has specified convincingly steep mandatory penalties for violating these provisions: A $250 fine, five points on your license, and most painful of all, a 60-day suspension.
School vehicles can be school-bus yellow, though it's not required. However, placards reading "school students" in black letters on bus-yellow background must be visible on front and rear.
Pittenger said many school vehicles are employed to transport special-needs students who cannot access school buses, or would have difficulty doing so. Some of those vehicles also are used by districts or their private providers for use on narrow roads or streets that prove challenging to full-size bus access, she said.
The Parkland School District uses school vehicles for students attending smaller charter, parochial or private schools, and for transport to and from remote or otherwise challenging locations, according to Jeff Emig, who supervises transportation for the district.
For example, weight restrictions on some rural bridges preclude the use of school buses, Emig said, making the lighter school vehicles the viable choice. More bridges will be getting weight restrictions, or having existing limits lowered, in the coming weeks as PennDOT acts to protect structurally deficient bridges statewide. Nearly 200 bridges in the Lehigh Valley will be affected.
School vehicles offer better gas mileage, and drivers do not need commercial driver's licenses with passenger and school-bus endorsements to operate them, as is the case with school buses.
Districts try to devise the most cost-effective routes, searching for the right mix of the two vehicle types depending on need, Emig said. "We have so many … little private schools that we transfer too — four kids here, four there," he said. Public districts that choose to transport their own students are required by law to do the same for those attending private schools located in those districts, he said.
About 1,100 citations are issued for illegally passing school buses in Pennsylvania each year, though some motorists successfully "plead down" to lesser offenses to avoid those two-month license suspensions. In addition, some violations go unreported simply because bus drivers can't secure the necessary information to viable complaints, she said.
The technology people are working on systems to help detour that problem, and cameras that "watch" surrounding traffic are being tested in a few districts, Pittenger said. Enabling legislation would be needed to put them on the road for real, but at some point, there might be yet another kind of camera eyeballing our every roadway move.
National School Bus Safety Week, Oct. 21-25, is approaching at a high rate of speed.
Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.