With students heading back to the classroom full-time this fall and more school buses out on the road, law enforcement is worried about safety.

Videos of vehicles driving through stop-arms and students nearly getting hit are not uncommon, but sometimes those stop-arm violations end in tragedy. In 2017, three 15-year-old Elk River School District students were struck by a pickup truck while they were crossing the road to their bus.

Motorists must stop at least 20 feet from a school bus that is displaying red flashing lights or a stop arm when approaching from the rear and from the opposite direction on undivided roads.  
Tyler Schank / 2019 file / News Tribune
Motorists must stop at least 20 feet from a school bus that is displaying red flashing lights or a stop arm when approaching from the rear and from the opposite direction on undivided roads. Tyler Schank / 2019 file / News Tribune

“They've had significant serious injuries, and a couple of them still deal with those injuries today,” Minnesota State Trooper Lt. Brian Reu said.

In January 2019, a Zumbrota-Mazeppa Elementary School fourth-grader was nearly hit by a truck as she walked to her school bus.

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These are among the thousands of incidents that occur every day all over the country, including in Minnesota. In 2019, 1,166 citations were written in Minnesota for stop-arm violations. That number was 1,052 in 2018 and 1,099 in 2017, according to court records.

Because many school districts in Minnesota started the 2020-2021 school year in distance learning or hybrid, there were fewer buses on the road, which meant fewer stop-arm violations. In 2020, only 505 stop-arm citations were issued in Minnesota. In the Northland, there were only 10 citations issued, compared to 45 in 2019.

Minnesota also participates in the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services’ single-day stop-arm violation survey. On a single day, chosen by the state, bus drivers all over the state keep track of stop-arm violations. They keep track of the time of day and whether the vehicle passed on the right or left side of the bus.

In Minnesota, about 2,000 bus drivers participate each year. From 2015 to 2019, they tallied an average of more than 600 violations in a single day. The 2020 and 2021 surveys were canceled due to COVID-19 and distance learning.

Stop 20 feet away

When motorists come upon a school bus with its red lights flashing and stop-arm extended, vehicles must stop at least 20 feet away when approaching from the rear and from the opposite direction on undivided roads. It’s the law.

Though motorists are not required to stop for a bus if it’s on the opposite side of a separated roadway, they should still remain alert for children crossing the road, Reu said. The minimum fine for a stop-arm citation is $500 and is considered a misdemeanor, he said.

If a child is outside of the bus when a motorist drives through a stop-arm or if they pass the school bus on the right side, it becomes a gross misdemeanor.

Drivers passing on the right side of a school bus, while unthinkable, does happen. Caught on video in 2014, a semitruck passed a school bus that had just stopped and opened its doors on the right side in Stearns County, nearly hitting the student standing on the side of the road waiting to board.

Reu said he responded to an incident in early 2000 in Edina, Minnesota, where a young girl was struck by somebody that passed her bus on the right side.

“She miraculously was not seriously injured, but that was horrific. … I wouldn’t have believed that she was going to be OK after that,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that somebody is willing to be careless enough to do something like that.

“These are other people’s kids out there that are really just trying to go on with their lives, get to school to continue their education to better themselves, and to take that away from them potentially is just hard to think about.”

Duluth Police Department Sgt. Ryan Morris said motorists need to be aware of their surroundings and know when school is back in session.

“Obviously, during certain times of the day — at the beginning and the end of the day — drivers need to be more vigilant and recognize that kids are going to be walking to and from school and waiting for buses,” Morris said.

Morris said there are some things that parents can do to prepare their children for the start of the school year. He said that parents should tell their students to watch for the bus driver to wave them across if they have to cross a street and to stay away from the roadway until the school bus stops so there are no unintentional accidents.

Morris said parents can also help by making sure their students are getting to the bus stop on time so the kids aren’t rushing to get to the bus and risk putting themselves in danger.

Recent speeding a concern

According to the Minnesota State Patrol, speeding on Minnesota roads continues to be an issue, with speeds being recorded over 100 mph.

“There is a concern because we’re seeing those increased speeds, increased crashes and pretty serious crashes, and that’s just regular everyday traffic,” Reu said. “Now we’re going to be having buses on the road, kids either trying to get on or off the bus or even just walking to school.”

Reu said motorists can do their part, especially during the school year, by putting their phones down, giving themselves plenty of time to get to their destination and being patient.

“Follow the speed limit and pay attention, so when you see the school buses out there you’re able to stop and give those kids time to board, give them space, let the drivers do their jobs and then continue on your way,” he said.

Morris said motorists could also try finding a different route to and from work.

“If you know a school bus is on a certain route when you’re trying to get to and from work, then try to find a different one and avoid the buses altogether,” he said.