HELENA — As school starts again across Montana, more than 78,000 students will resume their bus routes and drivers could face new consequences for passing school buses illegally.
During the 2021 Montana State Legislative session, lawmakers increased from $500 to $1,000 the reckless driving fine for people who pass a stopped school bus when it is flashing its red signals. Drivers could also face jail time.
Yellow buses will also have longer and larger stop signal arms.
Helena area Bus Driver Gary Herseim, who works for First Student, said he trains his riders to not cross until he signals. But he always worries about other drivers. He had a close call one morning moments after all his riders had loaded onto the bus.
“A car came flying up behind me and passed me on the right-hand side," Herseim said. "He’s half in the ditch, half on the road ... had those kids been standing there just a minute sooner it could have been a scary situation.”
When a stop signal arm is extended, and its red lights are flashing, drivers should stop 30 feet away.
When a school bus is stopped at a four-way intersection, drivers can’t turn left, right or pass the school bus.
If a stop arm is out on a road with a raised median all drivers headed in the same direction as the bus must stop. Whereas on a non-divided highway or two-lane road, a stop arm means drivers heading in both directions must stop.
Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Jay Nelson said MHP will be patrolling to make sure drivers aren’t putting kids in danger.
“Overall we have great citizens in the state of Montana," Nelson said. "However, I can tell you for the Montana Highway Patrol, we receive school bus complaints on a daily basis when school starts.”
Drivers can avoid school buses altogether by adjusting their commutes by five or 10 minutes, Herseim said. That way they can avoid dealing with a "big yellow Twinkie" on their way to work.