Without any snow days, the winter break ended has ended for D.C. area school kids, so you may have witnessed this scene a little earlier than usual: A yellow school bus parked on a neighbourhood street; its’ octagonal red-and-white STOP signs robotically swinging outward from both sides of the bus, to the tune of high-pitched beep–beep–beeps. Then comes a clatter of sneaker-clad footsteps as schoolchildren tumble out, laughing and chattering, glad to be done with school for the day. Cars rolling up behind the bus come to a halt, as do vehicles coming from the opposite direction.
A foreign driver, new to American traffic etiquette, might make the mistake of speeding up in the attempt to pass before the bus’s STOP signs are fully extended. My advice: DON’T. Not all foreign drivers (like me 🙂 ) act so irresponsibly, but a handful of reckless foreigners causes locals to brand us all as inept and write ridiculous articles about immigrants and their “bad driving habits” in the papers. The next time you see those school bus stop signs opening up and you’re tempted to jump it, remember: anything involving children is taken very seriously here.
Once, I witnessed a car cut off one of these school busses while others had stopped, and the driver about to open the door and let the kids out. Oh my. Immediately, an angry blaring of horns rang out from other cars that were stopped. Passengers were frowning and giving displeased looks. The bus driver poked his head out the window and shook a stern finger at the offending car as it roared away indifferently. In all honesty, I couldn’t help raising an eyebrow at all this wrath! Not because they weren’t right in their chastising, but because I’m not used to seeing a level of protectiveness that seems almost tribal.
In Malaysia, the busses I rode to school were run by private operators. They had no markings, no specific colour, and windows often half-open to let in air and let out sounds of the raucous affair from within. (25 hungry kids, packed into a hot and stuffy bus and impatient to get home was usually a rambunctious time. On one ride home, I was “married” to a boy whose name I don’t remember, all because we sat together more than twice. At age seven, it was quite a party, all ten minutes of it.) Upon disembarking, all I had was the driver’s assistant yelling in Cantonese, “Baibai, siu sam, ah!” (Goodbye! Be careful!) By US standards — considering that I was being dropped off at my grandmother’s shophouse in an area with plenty of business traffic — I should be glad I made it this far, still in one piece!
Despite the indignance from drivers that day, plenty of people still break this rule. The Maryland Department of Education found 4,657 drivers illegally passed a school bus in just a single day in April last year. It isn’t known if the drivers are local or foreign of course. States like Iowa, Maryland and Florida are stepping up surveillance through mounted bus cams and stricter enforcement. Fines are already pretty hefty, with most states threatening to dole out $250 tickets. In New York, it can be as much as $400. Don’t forget the points you don’t want on your record. In the District, you get four points for passing a school bus. Accumulating 10 is reason for a 90-day suspension. There’s jail time too. In Iowa, a man was sentenced to 15 years in prison for hitting and killing a schoolgirl named Kadyn.
Even if you’re still grappling with the strange traffic rules here, I’ve enlightened you to this one, so pay attention to the school busses ahead of you, and drive safely!