All local law enforcement agencies, including the Montana Highway Patrol, Lincoln County Sheriff's Office, Libby Police Department and Troy Police Department, are combining efforts and increasing patrols to crack down on the number of motorists who are making bad school bus passes on a daily basis.
These passes occur when the bus is stopped, the red flashers are activated and the bus is loading or unloading children. The number of bad passes has risen dramatically this year, indicated by the number of public complaints received by school bus drivers and the number of citations already issued by law enforcement officers.
One thing that I have noticed while following the busses around on routine patrol is that some drivers have the tendency to speed up and try to get past the bus when the yellow overhead lights are activated in an effort to beat the red lights. This is in direct violation of Montana Law 61-8-351 (2), which specifically states that "the driver of a vehicle shall slow to a rate of speed that is reasonable and must be prepared to stop when meeting or overtaking a school bus from either direction that is preparing to stop to discharge or receive school children as indicated by flashing amber lights."
Many bad school bus passes start right here because the motorist speeds up and has too much momentum to stop when the red lights on the school bus are activated.
What is the penalty or fine for a school bus pass violation? The maximum fine is $500 in addition to points added to your driver's license. Depending on the severity of the incident, a bad bus pass can fall into the reckless driving category, which is a five-point violation in addition to fines and possible time in jail. If you remember from drivers education, the more points you have, the higher your insurance rates will be if your carrier actually decides to continue to insure you at all.
Do I have to stop for a school displaying red lights on a four-lane section of roadway that has a center turn lane? Yes. Unless the roadway is physically divided by either a median or other barrier such as a concrete jersey rail, you are required to stop in both directions. A center turn lane does not constitute a physical barrier. Many violators claim they did not know that law even though it is one of the basic questions asked when taking the test to apply for a driver's license. The law also follows federal guidelines, which means there is no deviation between states; in other words, it is basically the same anywhere you drive in the United States.
Every school bus driver has a complaint form in their possession in addition to two-way radios and possibly cellphones. Many school busses are now equipped with video cameras that are activated each time the red lights are turned on and can record the license plate number and description of the offending vehicle. If the driver can get us a description of the vehicle or, better yet, a license plate number, we will locate the offending driver and enforce the law to the fullest extent.
The driver of the bus is then required to fill out a witness statement since they will be required to appear in court to testify if needed. Many times, other motorists that have witnessed the violation have also provided statements and appeared in court to testify when needed. It has been my experience that people do not tolerate bad school bus passes and are very willing to provide law enforcement with the information we need to follow through.
Please remember, the red lights on a school bus are a child's indication that the area is safe and it is time to get on board. It would be a senseless tragedy if a child was hurt or killed because someone was trying to shave 30 seconds off of his or her commute time.
As always, be safe, always use your seat belts and drive carefully - school's open.
Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Duane Bowers is Commander of Detachment 621 in Libby.