Driving by a school on a weekday morning has an eerie calm and emptiness to it, lately.
Instead of the action and noise of students filing out of buses, hopping out of a car, searching for prime parking spots or lingering outside, there’s a lot of nothing at most campuses across Snohomish County.
Schools, with some exceptions, are using remote learning because of COVID-19. But the mix of children and traffic remains hazardous. Even if schools remain empty for now, they won’t always. Some already brought in, or soon will bring back, elementary students, including in Stanwood.
“How about a refresher on stopping for school buses with lights flashing?” offered Dennis Bullock of Stanwood. “We all understand what to do when it’s a single lane each direction, but it seems to cause confusion when multiple lanes are involved.”
Street Smarts has dedicated hundreds, maybe thousands, of inches to school bus and school zone issues over the years. A sampling of headlines:
”Many drivers still illegally pass stopped school buses” in October 2014, “Stop for school bus? Not always” in October 2014, “Back-to-school rules for following school buses” in August 2015, “20 mph or not? School zone rules, explained” in October 2015, “What ‘when children are present’ means in a school zone” in November 2015, “Refresher course: Back-to-school rules of the road” in September 2018.
As reported by Street Smarts legend Melissa Slager in 2015, per the National Safety Council, drivers should follow these rules:
Give more following distance driving behind a bus than you would a car. It affords more time to stop once the yellow lights flash. It is illegal in all 50 states to pass a school bus that is stopped to load or unload children.
Never pass a bus from behind — or from either direction if you’re on an undivided road — if it is stopped to load or unload children
If the yellow or red lights are flashing and the stop arm is extended, traffic must stop
The area 10 feet around a school bus is the most dangerous for children; stop far enough away to allow them space to safely enter and exit the bus
Be alert; children can be unpredictable and tend to ignore hazards and take risks
Exceptions exist, however. If the roadway is divided — for example, a center turn lane between your lane of travel and the stopped bus — you do not need to stop.
On a related note, Herald writer Ian Davis-Leonard asked about school zones.
Even in normal times, the rules were inconsistent and depend on where you are. After checking with law enforcement agencies in Everett, Lynnwood and Snohomish County, that’s still true.
But before I get to some of those specifics, a plea to drive slower near children, parks and schools. It won’t hurt to ease off on the accelerator.
Areas patrolled by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, which include unincorporated areas and cities that contract with the sheriff’s office such as Gold Bar, Granite Falls, Snohomish, Stanwood and Sultan, vary according to the needs of the campus.
“It would be a case-by-case basis,” spokesperson Courtney O’Keefe said. “Some signs say when students are present so therefore only if students are on the campus. Otherwise it would be treated the same as a weekend or summer break if no students are on campus.”
If students are around, the slower speed limit is enforceable.
O’Keefe also said districts may have students with special needs on campus or host other youth programs, such as YMCA.
Everett uses “when flashing” and “when children are present” signs to alert drivers of the rules.
“Due to COVID, the beacons should be off and the 20 mph is not enforced when flashing,” Everett Police Department spokesperson Aaron Snell said. “However, there are private schools that are open with students and those zones will be enforced.”
Lynnwood’s school zone flashing lights and cameras are off while students aren’t on campus, city spokesperson Julie Moore said.
The automatic speed zone warning signs are off near Marysville School District buildings while the district instructs remotely.
“As always, we ask our drivers to exercise care and caution in and around the school zones regardless if the signs are on or off,” Marysville Police Department spokesperson Mark Thomas said in an email.
Some staff are working on campuses, and families grab meals or materials.
Once the district moves to either a hybrid plan or brings students back to campus, the city will turn on the signs again, Thomas said.
When you’re driving by a school next time, slow your roll and let that eerie calm creep in.
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