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I-Team: Drivers increasingly pass stopped school buses

Bus Stop Sign Loughrin.png
Michigan law prohibits drivers from passing a school bus when its red lights are flashing and its stop sign is out. (WWMT/Matt Loughrin)

Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, was the first day of school for many students across West Michigan, which meant many school buses were back on the roads.

Michigan State Police troopers were on the road Tuesday, as well, patrolling to ensure that drivers were staying safe around buses, and the Newschannel 3 I-Team rode along. Over the course of the morning, not one vehicle illegally passed the school bus the I-Team was following, but even so, bus drivers and police in West Michigan said the problem gets worse every year.

“The red lights mean stop. The yellow means caution. The red means stop,” bus driver Dawn Zerbel said.

For 20 years, Zerbel's days have started before the crack of dawn, running her school bus through a safety inspection to ensure everything is working properly before picking up students on her route for Paw Paw Public Schools. She said she can take all the steps to make her school bus as safe as possible, but it’s the other drivers on the roads who make the biggest difference.

“People just don’t pay attention as much anymore,” Zerbel said.

She said it’s not uncommon for her bus to be stopped, and picking up students, just to see a car go flying by, putting everyone involved in serious danger.

“It’s a big problem,” Zerbel said. “It happens two, three times a day.”

Michigan State Police Trooper Jacob Bailey followed Zerbel’s route the first day of school to ensure people were following the rules of the road.

“The kids, they’re putting their trust in the school bus and the school bus needs to put their trust in the community that they’re going to be obeying they laws,” Bailey said.

He said with many bus routes starting before the sun is up, it’s hard to spot students boarding, so passing a stopped school bus is dangerous.

At one stop it took Bailey several seconds to notice one student crossing the road.

“Even me as a state trooper, I was looking for the kid to cross, but he was hard to see because he was wearing black pants, black backpack,” he said.

Bailey said drivers should think of a school bus stop like a traffic light.

If the school bus is pulled to the side with just the hazards flashing, you can proceed with caution. If the overhead lights are flashing yellow, prepare to stop. If the overhead lights are flashing red and the stop sign extended, stop.

Zerbel said during her two decades behind the wheel, the problem has gotten worse as more people drive distracted by cell phones.

The Allegan County Sheriff's Office has issued 24 citations for passing school buses since 2017.

The Kalamazoo County District Court handled 45 citations in 2018. So far in 2019, they issued 24 citations.

The Van Buren County Sheriff's Office has issued nine citations since 2015.

Most buses won’t have police following them on the lookout for violators every day, but many law enforcement agencies now have forms for bus drivers to fill out when someone illegally drives by. With most school buses equipped with cameras that catch the incident, even if a police officer isn’t present, passing a school bus could lead to a big ticket.

If you get caught passing a school bus in Michigan, it doesn’t come cheap. Fines range from $100 to $500 in addition to court costs. Judges also can add up to 100 hours of community service for a school district.

“You’re still held responsible,” Bailey said. “You still can be responsible for your actions.”