DPS cracks down on illegal bus passing, using cell phones in school zones
MONTGOMEY COUNTY – This past school week, Oct. 19-23, was National School Bus Safety Week, during which time the Texas Department of Public Safety participated by stepping up enforcement efforts at school bus stops and in school zones. Many Montgomery County residents learned about the initiative the hard way, and some were reminded or informed about a more recently enacted law.
An estimated 2.96 million vehicles illegally pass stopped school buses in Texas during a typical school year, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute. That means on average, 17,000 times each day a vehicle disregards the flashing red lights and extended stop sign on a school bus loading or unloading children who may be coming from or headed to either side of the street.
Sgt. Terry Barnhill, DPS Conroe, said his district’s efforts focused on school zones and bus stops in the Willis and Conroe Independent School Districts, where around 40 citations were issued to drivers who disregarded the stop signs and flashing lights on buses. If convicted, the cost for that violation can be up to $1,000. Those caught two or more times can face felony charges with steeper fines and possible jail time.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Barnhill’s office coordinated with Willis ISD’s traffic safety director, placing troopers on two buses with troopers following to issue citations when offenders were identified by those riding on the bus. The Pct. 1 Constable’s Office also participated.
Thursday and Friday’s enforcement efforts were mainly focused inside Conroe City limits in locations where bus drivers had complained of frequent violations. Troopers were in marked and unmarked vehicles.
Trooper Jay Smith parked near one of the problematic stops before daylight Friday morning, where he waited and watched. As traffic began to flow on North Loop 336 near Cartwright Rd., Trooper Smith was focused on an apartment complex on the north side of the street, where a westbound bus stopped to pick up children. The bus’s lights were activated and the stop sign was extended, but a pickup in the eastbound lanes blew past the bus without hesitation.
Trooper Smith followed the truck and initiated a traffic stop near the intersection of Loop 336 and N. Frazier, where he issued the driver a citation. The driver told Smith he had not even noticed the bus.
Smith said compliance is a major problem where buses stop on multi-lane roadways, particularly with a turn lane in the middle, because people often and mistakenly assume they are not required to stop on the opposite side of the road.
Non-compliance was light in that location on Friday morning, with experienced bus drivers timing their stops to allow the most time for loading before signal lights changed allowing traffic to flow. Also, weather conditions were good and traffic was not heavy. Apparently, such is not always the case, since the location was listed by the district among those with the most violators.
Sgt. Barnhill said through this initiative he learned to what lengths the school districts’ transportation departments went to ensure safety, and he was impressed. Nonetheless, he noted that children are unpredictable and protecting them also requires attentiveness and compliance with bus safety laws on the part of other drivers.
To that end, on Sept. 1, a new law went into effect in Texas making it illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving through a school zone. Barnhill said all school zones in Conroe ISD and Willis ISD now have signs reminding drivers of the new law. However, many people are not getting the message, so troopers were also stopping drivers who were talking on their cell phones.
After Smith left his post on the North Loop on Friday morning, he went to a school zone on North Pacific Street where it did not take long to see someone drive through chatting away on a cell phone. Smith stopped the woman, who said she lived nearby and knew about the law, but forgot she needed to stay off of the phone in that stretch of road.
A short time later, Smith pulled over another woman who drove through the same school zone, past the new signs, talking on her cell phone. She claimed she had no knowledge of the new law. Around 20 people were stopped for that offense throughout the week.
The officially National School Bus Safety Week ended on Friday, but offenders who went undetected should not feel smug because they may still find themselves reaching for their license and insurance.
Barnhill said when units are available, he will continue to assign them to school bus stops and school zones for the same purposes. The efforts will be sporadic and without the media announcement made for the national weeklong initiative, with troopers using marked or unmarked units.
The districts will continue to monitor problems and provide DPS with the locations where they are most needed, Barnhill said.
Texas School Bus Law
Sec. 545.066. Passing a School Bus: Offense.
(a) An operator on a highway, when approaching from either direction a school bus stopped on the highway to receive or discharge a student:
(1) shall stop before reaching the school bus when the bus is operating a visual signal as required by Sec. 547.701: and
(2) may not proceed until:(A) the school bus resumes motion; (B) the operator is signaled by the bus driver to proceed; or (C) the visual signal is no longer actu-ated.
(b) An operator on a highway having separate roadways is not required to stop:
(1) for a school bus that is on a different roadway; or
(2) if on a controlled-access highway, for a school bus that is stopped: (A) in a loading zone that is a part of or adjacent to the highway; and (B) where pedestrians are not permitted to cross the roadway.
As of Sept. 1, 2009:
Sec. 545.425. USE OF WIRELESS COMMUNICATION DEVICE; OFFENSE.
(b) Prohibits an operator, except as provided by Subsection (c), from using a wireless communication device while operating a motor vehicle within a school crossing zone, as defined by Section 541.302 (Traffic Areas), Transportation Code, unless the vehicle is stopped, or the wireless communication device is used with a hands-free device