The rules of the road can often be confusing, contradictory, or simply unknown. When it comes to rules that protect our children, however, not knowing what to do can have tragic consequences. 


When we get behind the wheel of a car, we begin making decisions immediately and we don’t stop making decisions about what we are doing (as a motorist) until we reach our destination. Most of these decisions are automatic: The keys go in the ignition, the car is started, and the seatbelt (usually) goes on. Somewhere in the back of our mind we know where we are going and (about) how long it will take to get there. And so, we go. We (usually) roll through the stop signs and come to a complete stop at red lights. But what do we do when we approach a school bus? 


This is where automatic driving is often interrupted by a nagging thought process: Am I supposed to stop? If so, where? How long? The sign on the back of the bus says, “Stop When Red Lights Flash,” but the lights are amber. And what about that stop sign that pops out on the back of the bus? If it’s not out, does that mean I don’t have to stop? What if I’m on the other side of the street going the opposite direction of the bus? What then?


The answers to these questions are contained in California Vehicle Code. Section 22454, which states that “(a) … upon meeting or overtaking, from either direction, any school bus … that is stopped for the purpose of loading or unloading any schoolchildren and displays a flashing red light signal and stop signal arm [if so equipped] shall bring the vehicle to a stop immediately before passing the school bus and shall not proceed until [the flashing lights/stop signal arm] cease operation.” 


However, Section (b) (1) and (2) of the code defines a multiple lane highway as “any highway that has two or more lanes of travel in each direction,” and indicates that drivers coming from the opposite direction of a divided highway or multiple lane highway “need not stop.” 


Section 22454 defines the rules drivers must obey when a school bus is stopped and the warning flashers are in use. Section 22112 of the Vehicle Code defines the conditions under which the bus driver must use the warning systems and rules governing bus stops and school children actually crossing the street. Section 22112 also discusses where parents may and may not wait for their children at the bus stop, and where bus stops may and may not be located.


Before I demystify the school bus flashers and what it all means, I want to clarify the concepts behind “shall,” “shall not” “may,” “may not,” “need not,” and “ought/ought not.” 


In legal terms “shall” represents a contractual obligation. It has the force of law and refers to what one must or must not, as the case may be, do. For example, “shall stop” and “shall not proceed” in section 22454 means you have to obey this law — or else! In this case the “or else” refers to a ticket with fines and penalties in excess of $600, and a negligent driving point on your record. 


To illustrate the concept of “may,” it is interesting to note that Section 22454 also states that the bus driver “may” report you to local law enforcement if they witness you ignoring the “shall stop” and “shall not proceed” directives and penalties “may” be imposed. So, if you are inclined to think, “No cop, no foul” think again.


Now, on a divided highway or multi-lane highway the oncoming traffic “need not stop.” This does not mean that you “ought not stop.” This is when thinking about driving tasks ought to be foremost in the driver’s mind. 


Section 22112 comprises the rules and regulations governing when and where bus drivers are mandated to use their warning systems. It is the responsibility of the bus driver to know when and where the warning signs are employed. It is the responsibility of the motorist to always obey the signs. The flashing amber (orange) lights are to be employed 200 feet before a scheduled stop. They are a warning to motorists that the bus is preparing to stop. Kind of a notification that motorists should start thinking about driving in a less automatic way and be prepared to stop if the bus’s red flashers or stop signal arm are employed.


The flashing red lights are turned on when children are getting on or off of the bus. They always mean “STOP WHEN RED LIGHTS FLASH.” That always applies to motorists behind the school bus traveling in the same direction as the school bus. 


The stop signal arm is not on all buses, but when it is there, and when it is employed it (almost) always means traffic in both directions shall stop, and shall not proceed until the sign is retracted. The exception is on a divided highway or multi-lane highway where oncoming traffic need not stop.


Complicated? Somewhat. Worth knowing? Absolutely if you care about the safety of our children.