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Cimino: Will it take a tragedy for drivers to stop passing school buses?

I've been thinking about ... the rules of the road.

At 7:48 a.m. Jan. 3, at the school bus stop located on Md. 97 North, a white SUV sped past a stopped bus with its lights flashing and stop arms extended. Fortunately, the bus driver blew her horn when she saw the SUV fast approaching, warning the middle school child who has to cross the road there to get to the bus. The SUV didn't even slow down. Had the bus driver not blown the horn and the boy not looked up, there could have been a tragedy.

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One of my staff members told me this story and she was so upset that she printed out the Maryland rules on the subject, got me a statement from a school bus driver friend of hers, put the materials on my desk and said, "You should write about this."

According to the Maryland Highway Safety Office, school buses are nearly eight times safer than passenger vehicles. Having said that, one pedestrian fatality at a school bus stop is one too many given there are clear rules on the subject. They are quite simple.

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•Vehicles must stop when a school bus displays flashing yellow then red warning lights and extends the stop signal arm and may not pass until the flashing red lights and signals are turned off. Bus drivers can report passing vehicles.

•Vehicles traveling in the same direction and those traveling in the opposite direction on a two-lane road (including those with a center turning lane) and four-lane roads without a median are always required to stop. On a divided highway of four lanes or more with a median, only traffic following the bus must stop.

•Vehicles must never pass on the right side of a school bus where children are entering or exiting.

•In Maryland, the fine for illegally passing a school bus with lights flashing can be anywhere from $125 up to $570.

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But now it gets interesting. Despite the clear rules, local school bus drivers are frustrated by how many times motorists run through the yellow and red stop lights on the buses. They understand that people are trying to get to work and they pull over to let drivers pass when it is possible to do so. Many times it is not possible. It takes an average of 45 to 90 seconds to load or unload students. Where, the bus drivers wonder, do you have to be that is more important than a child's life?

In training and in-service classes, school bus drivers learn that they are permitted to report offenders. This is possible probably 1 out of 10 times, as it is difficult to get a description of the car and license number while looking out for the children and other traffic. When the planets align and the information is captured, the police are very good at finding the offending driver, but more frustration is in store for the school bus driver who is now a witness. As a witness, the school bus driver must take a day off from work, sit in court for hours and then listen to the offender say they didn't see the bus lights.

Now let's review: A school bus is yellow, is as big as a house, and has yellow and red flashing lights and arms that spread out across the lane. If you can't see that, maybe you shouldn't be driving at all.

The school bus driver who gave me this information wonders, as do I, does a child have to be killed crossing the street before this issue is taken seriously? What if that child was yours?

Audrey Cimino is executive director of The Community Foundation of Carroll County. She writes from Westminster.

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