What's Your Beef? Flashing RED Means Stop!

As a school bus driver in Bozeman, I love the smiling faces and the great kids I get to deliver to school every day. The counter to that is my real disappointment with drivers running the flashing reds and stop signs of the school busses all around the Gallatin Valley. I have seen it happen. My driving colleagues have it happen. Everyone sitting behind the wheel of a 33,000 lbs., 9-foot-wide, 43-foot-long yellow behemoth has a pit in their stomach when it happens. Why don’t these red-light running drivers care more about our kids?

The magnitude of what it means to “run the reds” has really come home to me, when I heard about a young girl in Whitefish being struck by a car while leaving her bus this past November. After hearing about this, the risk was crystal clear, and it was immediately obvious to me that kids in Bozeman regularly face being injured by a vehicle driven by someone who has simply no consideration nor regard for our children’s safety. To be fair and frank, those drivers may not think of their actions in those terms. They may be so enthralled in the importance of their mobile phone or feel so entitled with their precious time that the last thing they think about is the child just trying to get to or from school via the big yellow bus. The little girl from Whitefish is still in a coma from her injuries – how about that driver? What were they thinking? We spend millions of dollars on school safety with remodeling entrances and shooter drills to protect children from a possible attack at school, while in my opinion, one of the most preventable threats to children in the Gallatin Valley is just getting on and off their bus.

I love living in Bozeman, and the majority of the people here are great, and they know that the big yellow bus is carrying our community’s future and patiently wait for kids to get on and off the bus and give a little wave and smile afterward. Last year, during Bozeman’s epic winter, I saw firsthand the appreciation of the bus, when a team of neighbors mobilized and dug my bus out of a snow drift so we could get to school. I have parents waiting at their children’s bus stop to make a positive handoff each and every day. Most people are looking out for each other in that special Bozeman way.

Wanting to be pragmatic and looking at the red-light runner issue from another perspective, I have been reflecting on what the kids on my bus say. There are several of them that likely have never heard of the little girl in Whitefish, but are frightened to cross the street to get on and off the bus due to the close calls they have seen, where drivers have not stopped. School bus drivers use a simple system to communicate with kids, so that they know that there are more than just their eyes watching. The bus driver also has a system to communicate with the other vehicles on the road -- the flashing yellow and red lights. If you are alert while driving, there is no way you can miss the flashing reds.  When a school bus approaches a stop, while the bus is still moving, the driver switches on the flashing yellows. Then when the bus comes to a full stop, on come the flashing reds and out goes the stop sign. Then the driver looks both ways down the road, and after thoroughly checking, makes eye contact with the child that needs to cross, and gives them the thumbs-up. The kids know that someone is helping to watch, but they are still frightened. Many times, I have had to make kids patiently wait to see if the car charging toward the bus will actually stop because so many times those vehicles defy logic and start speeding up when they see the yellow lights to “beat the reds” and couldn’t stop when the reds started flashing.

In case you missed it, earlier this year, the news had a story about someone running the reds of a school bus in Belgrade. What was very reassuring, the reporter talked about all of the people that called in the incident and how the community was mobilizing to find the person, including a family videotaping the incident. The news made it well known that this happened, and hopefully, the news coverage not only tracked down the offender, but also deferred others. My optimism came in the idea that maybe some more people will take the step and report drivers that run the reds.

It is almost a daily occurrence to have a car run the stop sign on my route. I have not taken a scientific survey, but I pay a lot of attention to the other drivers around, and it would be easy to say that the people that you would expect to run the reds are the young inexperienced drivers—yes, at times it looks to be a high school or college student -- but if I reflect on the drivers I see most running the stop sign, the drivers are college professors, tradespeople, soccer moms, and I have even seen an official Bozeman City vehicle blow right by. Is it the phone? Is it their next appointment? Is it too many beers at the pub?  

Now what does the law say? Many people can’t tell you, which makes me wonder how long it has been since they took their driving test. The law for school busses is federally standardized in ALL states, so you don’t have to worry about learning something that you can’t use on your next trip to Seattle, nor should the next visitor from Minnesota not know what to do. You MUST stop a minimum of 30 feet from the school bus when the reds are flashing. It doesn’t matter if you are travelling the other direction, you must stop, and the law takes this seriously. It is a $500 fine to pass the bus, and multiple points off your license – maybe even risking your insurance, but for sure your rates will go up. Then there is the terrible consequence if something happens. The state will likely charge you with criminal endangerment or more, and you could find yourself in jail, but even worse than that, you could seriously injure or kill someone.

As a school bus driver, I have a legal obligation to turn on the flashing lights and put out the sign when I stop to let kids on/off my bus. You as a driver have not just a legal, but a moral, obligation to stop. You have an obligation to do this each and every time you see a school bus flashing.

The next time you see the flashing reds, slow down to a stop, put a smile on and get ready to wave – it is the right way to spend that moment.    

Betsy Garrigues is Bozeman area school bus driver.