Peggy Nieuwenhuis calls it “squeezing the lemon.”
That’s when motorists see a school bus’s flashing yellow lights, and instead of slowing down, they speed up and try to pass the bus before the red lights come on and the stop sign arm extends.
Nieuwenhuis, a safety and training manager with Dousman Bus Company in Delavan, said her drivers are seeing more of that kind of behavior on the roads.
And while it’s not technically illegal to pass a school bus with its yellow lights on, it’s incredibly dangerous for kids—and you could end up with a ticket anyway.
Recently, Steven J. Steinert, 52, of 19 Auburn Drive, town of Beloit, was cited for hit and run with property damage and improperly passing a school bus, among other citations. Police say Steinert passed the bus while it was stopped, ripping off its stop arm with his truck.
At the end of October, five Wisconsin children were killed in three days while waiting for the school bus. In one incident, a 9-year-old girl and her 6-year-old twin brothers were killed while crossing the road to get on a school bus, which had its red lights on and stop arm extended.
Under state law, drivers must stop on the street or highway 20 feet or more from any school bus that has stopped and is flashing red warning lights, according to the state Department of Transportation.
The law applies to vehicles approaching from any direction, unless those approaching from the front are on the opposite side of a highway divided by a center median.
All lanes of traffic must stop for the school bus, and no vehicle may proceed until the bus resumes motion and has turned off the red warning lights.
“The stop arm on the bus is an added communication to other drivers, but the lack of an extended stop arm is not reason to pass a bus whose red lights are flashing,” the DOT says.
The warning systems on buses were enhanced recently, Nieuwenhuis said.
Starting in 2016, school bus drivers were required to turn on flashing yellow lights 300 feet before they stop and turn on the red lights.
The law was changed so motorists would have more information about upcoming stops. But instead of slowing down, drivers treat the yellow flashing lights like a yellow traffic signal.
“We’ve noticed that a lot of drivers speed up when they see the yellow lights come on,” Nieuwenhuis said.
As a result, the red lights might come on while drivers are passing the bus.
Derek Diehl, safety coordinator and transportation director for the Beloit Turner School District, is familiar with that tendency. When a bus turns on its yellow lights, it means drivers must proceed with caution and prepare to stop, he said.
“It’s not a speed up, hurry up, so I’m not inconvenienced” kind of moment, Diehl said.
The penalty for passing a school bus displaying its red warning lights is $326 and four points, according to state statutes. The penalty applies even if a driver started to pass while the yellow lights were still on.
Nieuwenhuis has created fliers asking motorists to exercise more caution when passing buses. She has asked drivers to distribute them in their communities.
“People need to slow down, to put down their phones and pay attention,” she said.
From 2007 to 2016, 98 school-age pedestrians died in school transportation-related crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of those, 62 percent were struck by school buses and 38 percent were struck by other vehicles.