We still have a couple weeks before our streets and sidewalks fill up in the early mornings and late afternoons with schoolchildren, many of them distracted, some of them hopping on and off of yellow school buses, all of them on their ways to and from classes.
But it's not too soon for motorists to start thinking about being extra vigilant in watching out for the kiddos and their unpredictable ways, as if lives depended on it — because they do.
And if safety and avoiding tragedy aren't motivation enough for motorists to slow down and obey traffic laws, especially in school zones and anywhere else students on foot might be darting out unexpectedly, here's another: This month, the fine for failing to stop for a school bus with its lights flashing and its crossing arm fully extended increased a wallet-emptying nearly 70 percent, from $300 to $500.
Motorists not paying enough attention around school buses is a dangerous, tragedy-waiting-to-happen occurrence that's far more common than many of us might imagine, fine or no fine. Earlier this year, during an annual School Bus Stop Arm Survey, 3,659 bus drivers across the state reported more than 700 stop-arm violations — in just one day, as the Minnesota Department of Public Safety reported. In the past six years, law enforcement across Minnesota has written nearly 9,000 stop-arm violation citations.
"Too often motorists ignore the school bus laws or are too distracted that they don't see the bus picking up or dropping off children until it's too late," Col. Matt Langer, chief of the Minnesota State Patrol, said this summer in a statement to media. "When motorists violate the law, it puts the lives of children at risk. Drivers should always be looking out for school buses and expect those buses to make frequent stops. ... Pay attention and stop for buses to help keep our children safe."
A reminder for motorists: State law requires you to stop at least 20 feet from a school bus that has its red lights flashing or its stop arm out, whether you're following the bus or coming from the opposite direction on an undivided road.
And a tip from Minnesota Public Safety: "The best way to be aware of your surroundings at all times is to put the distractions away."
"We want motorists to pay attention around buses," Lt. Robert Zak of the State Patrol said in a July 31 Star Tribune story. "We don't want to hand out citations. We don't want anybody to be injured or killed."
Students who also don't want to be injured or killed can do their part to stay safe, too, of course. They can look to be sure no cars are passing on the shoulder when they step off a school bus. They can wait for the bus driver to signal them that it's safe to cross a street. And they can make eye contact with motorists, confirm motorists see them, before proceeding across a street.
All students getting to and from school safely can be everyone's goal. And there's no reason to wait a couple weeks for classes to resume to be thinking about that goal's lives-depend-on-it importance.