School's starting ... time to brush up on traffic rules, or pay the price

Melissa Preddy
School bus.

Aside from the recent cool nip in the night air, one harbinger of fall will be the appearance next week of big yellow buses, safety-vested crossing guards and other school transportation symbols.

The morning and afternoon commutes — eased the last few months by the school hiatus and the thinning of freeway traffic by vacations and lax summer schedules — will be more crowded, more intense and more fraught with opportunities for costly driver error.

In addition to the primary goal of not hurting anyone, you might want to brush up on traffic rules that pertain to school-related transport, because failing to do so can sting the pocketbook big time.

I learned that the hard way last fall when driving down a very familiar road at a very unfamiliar time. Turns out that during school arrival periods, the speed limit drops from 40 miles per hour to 25, signaled by a flashing sign near a middle school. Unfortunately for me, I was in the left lane and a school bus was abreast of my car in the right lane, blocking my view of the sole warning sign.

“Wake up, people!” I thought irritably, gunning my hatchback around snails’-pace vans and sedans. “Some of us have places to go this morning!”

Yeah, well, haste makes waste. The blue-and-red lights filled my rear-view mirror and I ended up sitting on a subdivision side street for 20 minutes while an officer ran my identification and registration. 

School zone traffic tickets are no joke, especially when you’re traveling 20 mph over the temporary speed limit, as I was.  Because fines are doubled for violations near schools, I could’ve been looking at about $400 out of pocket, plus the insurance-premium whammy of three points on my record.

Forcing myself to be polite and humble to the officer was rewarded with a notation on the report that I displayed a “good attitude.”  In court a month or so later, the prosecutor noted that remark in the paperwork and because my record was otherwise clean, the offense and penalty were reduced.  But that impatient burst of speed during the kiddie transportation hour still cost me $150, a morning in line at court and a lot of angst.

If you can’t re-route your commute to avoid school zones, be on the alert for changes in the speed limit, and for crossing guards.  Disobeying a command from one of these stop-sign wielding authorities is a misdemeanor in Michigan, according to the state vehicle code.  That could mean hundreds of dollars in fines, attorney fees and the dreaded three points on your driving history.  Just hit the brakes, instead, or find another way to work.

Sharing the road with school buses is another challenge for motorists.  According to the Michigan Department of Education, about 16,000 school buses are on the road, ferrying K-12 students more than 112 million miles a year.  Nationwide, the buses travel more than eight billion miles a year!

The law requires that drivers stop at least 20 feet away when the red lights of a school bus are flashing.  Obviously, this is for the safety of those entering and exiting the buses; don’t even think about dodging past or you could be looking at fines of up to $500, plus attorney costs and even 100 hours of community service at a school. 

Allowing extra time, or using roads not heavily traveled by school transport, or both, will be a sanity saver for commuters.  I’ve discovered some pleasant back roads and explored new communities by taking a creative approach to the morning route. 

One last observation:  Bus riders and street-crossers could be a bit more considerate, too, and not amble through their intersections or toward the bus when many other vehicles are idling in wait.  Courtesy goes both ways.

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer.  Reach her via