Written by Gregory Monte.
Is a driver permitted to pass a school bus when the yellow (amber) lights are flashing?
The Short Answer
Yes, you can pass a school bus with flashing amber lights.
Simple enough, but I will add that you are asking for trouble if you do so immediately after these lights are activated. It is not a good idea to treat the amber lights on a school bus like you would the yellow traffic light at an intersection. The difference is that, once the red school bus lights go on, you are obligated to stop immediately – even if you are in the process of passing and you are in the other lane of the roadway.
Obviously, this is not the case at a stop-light intersection. For safety reasons, you can’t just stop your car when the light turns red. Instead, you are pretty much obligated to accelerate on through and “run the red light.”
Now that this basic point is clear, the remainder of my post uses the following two sources to clarify the issue of school bus vehicle law:
- Pennsylvania Title 75, Section 3345 (Meeting or Overtaking School Bus)
- Pennsylvania Supreme Court Case Commonwealth v. Schlegel, 577 Pa. 321, 845 A.2d 759 (2004).
The “Passing Window”
Title 75, Section 3345(b) appears to suggest that drivers are permitted to pass a school bus when the amber lights are flashing:
“The driver of a vehicle meeting or overtaking any school bus shall proceed past the school bus with caution and shall be prepared to stop when the amber signal lights are flashing.”
Because that section states that drivers “shall be prepared to stop” rather than that they must stop, it seems fairly obvious that it is OK to pass the bus on the amber signal.
But then Section 3345(d) adds some nuance to this rule because it specifies when the amber lights are first to be activated:
“The amber visual signals shall be actuated by the driver of every school bus not more than 300 feet nor less than 150 feet prior to making a stop …”
Why does this complicate the situation?
Because this introduces a kind of “passing window” into the mix. Basically, you have a 150-300-foot window of opportunity to pass, and your action must be completed before the school bus actually stops.
The existence of this “passing window” rule is further highlighted if you read the rest of Section 3345(d):
“Amber signals shall not be used unless the red visual signals are to be actuated immediately following.”
According to this sentence, the bus driver is required to activate the red signal as soon as he stops to discharge the children.
The Gray Area
A gray area arises, however, in situations when the bus driver stops to pick up or discharge children but does not activate the red lights right away. We have probably all experienced this scenario. Maybe the kids are running a little bit late so they are not actually standing at the roadway. The bus driver realizes this and so remains stationary with amber lights active.
Could you pass in this type of situation?
Again, the short answer is yes, but, yet again, you are asking for trouble.
A Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision sheds some light on this situation: Commonwealth v. Schlegel, 577 Pa. 321, 845 A.2d 759 (2004).
Mr. Schlegel was issued a citation for illegally passing a school bus in case similar to the one I described just now. The red lights of the bus didn’t go on right away and so he figured that he could pass. The problem that he encountered was that the red lights went on before he completed this passing manoeuver. Instead of stopping (because he was in the other lane of traffic), he went on through as he would have done at an intersection where the light turned red while he was in the middle of it.
Here are the details as related in his appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court:
“He approached a stationary mini school bus, which was positioned in the center of the eastbound lane of traffic, with its flashing, amber signal lamps activated. Appellee paused directly behind the bus for several seconds, then proceeded to cross the double-yellow line, traveling around the bus in the opposing lane of traffic. By the time that the cab of Appellee’s truck came even with the bus’s rear axle, the bus driver had activated the flashing red signal lamps and extended the stop signal arm located at the front, side of the bus. Appellee, however, continued to pass and was then stopped by a municipal police officer and a State Police trooper, both of whom witnessed his conduct.”
The Court ruled against Mr. Schlegel because he didn’t wait long enough behind the school bus when it had its amber signals activated. Furthermore, the court pointed out that, even if he was permitted to pass, he was still required to stop as soon as the red lights went on and the stop arm was in place.
“Certainly, in common experience, school bus drivers transporting children at times disregard the statutorily prescribed protocol of activating flashing red lamps immediately upon stopping … Appellee’s situation, however, is not a troubling one, as the delay in the activation of the red lights here was merely a few seconds in length (even if Appellee’s testimony would have been believed, the delay was, at most, fifteen seconds) … This, however, does not absolve the motorist of the responsibility to stop when confronted with an extended, school bus stop signal arm.”
The Bottom Line
Let’s face it, most of us have gotten stuck behind a slow moving school bus at some time in our lives so we know how frustrating it can be. We might even wonder to ourselves why on earth don’t these drivers show a little courtesy by pulling off to the side of the road every so often to let the long line of cars stuck behind them pass.
In fact, if you read one of my previous blog posts, Taking Your Car Out for a “Walk.” A Ticket for the Slow-Pokes, you know that drivers – ALL DRIVERS – are required by law to pull over if the speed they are traveling is impeding traffic. I could not find anywhere in Title 75 which exempts school bus drivers from this requirement.
Be that as it may, your best bet is to never pass a school bus when the yellow signals are on unless the driver of that bus indicates is some fashion that it is OK to do so. Also, even if your impatience is getting the better of you, you should still wait more than 15 seconds before considering the passing move. Finally, don’t forget to drive very slowly because you just never know when that red light/stop arm will be activated. There is no need to worry about getting stuck in the opposite lane because the traffic coming in the other direction also has to stop. Its nothing like getting caught in the middle of an intersection when the light changes.