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School Bus Stop Arms

A topic that frequently comes up is flashing lights and stop arms for school buses.

According to the Traffic Safety Bylaw,

The operator of a vehicle bearing the sign “School Bus” may activate flashing red or yellow lights or the stop arm on any highway within the City where the designated speed limit is or exceeds 80 kilometers per hour or while loading or unloading passengers on a roadway where there is no curb or gutter present on both sides of the roadway.

Outside of our rural service area, school bus flashers and stop arms are effectively prohibited. Some people object to this. They feel that these should be used to help make kids safer.

In these conversations, it is often suggested that the City does not allow school buses to use stop arms because it would inhibit the flow of traffic. This is not true. School bus stop arms are prohibited in the City because evidence suggests they make children LESS safe. This prohibition is NOT in place due to concerns about allowing traffic to flow more quickly.

Our current Council has never considered this bylaw. However, the safety of children is very important to me. For that reason, I’ve done my own research on this topic.

Below is some of the information I’ve found. But this is a very important topic. If you have more information I should consider, please send it my way.


DO STOP ARMS MAKE KIDS SAFER?

School bus stop arms are very important in many rural settings. In these areas, traffic is fast moving, drivers aren’t expecting pedestrians, and there are no curbs, crosswalks, signs, lights, or other engineering elements present to create safe crossing spaces for kids getting on and off a bus. A school bus stopping traffic is an essential component to helping kids cross rural roads safely.

There are also some jurisdictions where pedestrians aren’t given right-of-way at uncontrolled intersections. Since traffic doesn’t have to stop for them, it is up to pedestrians to cross when there is a safe gap in traffic. In these cases, school buses stop arms are often used to create a situation in which vehicles are responsible to stop for crossing children.

However, there are many jurisdictions (including Alberta) where vehicles are required to stop for pedestrians at all uncontrolled intersections. From my research, it seems that stop arms are prohibited in most urban jurisdictions where pedestrians have right of way.

Stop arms are prohibited in most urban settings because it is safest for kids to cross at corners rather than in the middle of a street. Intersections are designed to have long lines of visibility for both kids and drivers: these aren’t always present mid block. Drivers are also paying more attention approaching intersections than they are mid-block. A big concern with allowing stop arms is that they will likely encourage kids to cross mid-block rather than at corners.

Additionally, if a kid is crossing at an intersection near a school bus with arms up, they may feel safe and not show the same level of care as they would on their own. These crossings are problematic since, in urban areas, cars frequently blow past school buses with their stop arms out (a study in Ontario found that 0.7 - 2.5 cars blew by each bus daily: click here and here to read about similar studies in the US). It is safer for kids to cross properly at intersections rather than rely on a school bus to help them stop.

Finally, concerns have been raised about stop arms encouraging bad habits. By stopping most traffic, school buses may teach children that vehicles will always stop for them when they cross the road. This may lead to them giving less care and attention when crossing without a school bus present.

Most urban jurisdictions, including Grande Prairie, prohibit stop arms because they have concluded that stop arms are less safe for children than requiring them to cross normally at the closest intersection.

If you want to dig in further, this 2014 report from Calgary is a good place to start. It includes a jurisdictional scan of rules across North America.


ALBERTA and Grande prairie HISTORY

A Grande Prairie management report (linked below) has some interesting history.

The practice of school buses stopping traffic was originally intended for use on rural, high speed roads. Until 1986, the use of stopping arms was prohibited on all Alberta roads with a speed limit of 50 km/h or less.

In 1986, the Alberta Highway Traffic Act was changed to allow municipalities to make their own rules about school buses stopping traffic. At the time, the Minister of Transportation sent a letter to municipalities encouraging them to update their bylaws. In that letter, the Minister said:

In some low speed urban situations, it is better to require students on school buses to use existing traffic controls such as stop signs or signals and crosswalks than to depend on school bus warning lights for protection. Where well marked intersections and roadways are present, it is actually safer to use those markings and devices than to use flashing school bus lights. With this in mind, the amendment authorizes… urban centres… to pass a bylaw that exempts school buses from the requirement to use alternately flashing lamps on any street or roadway.

At this time, Grande Prairie City Council prohibited the use of flashing lights and stop arms on school buses.

This issue was re-visited by our previous Council when a 2015 accident in which a child disembarking from a school bus was struck by a vehicle. This occurred on a road which had no curb and gutters.

In response, Council updated the Traffic Safety Bylaw in early 2016 to allow school buses to use flashing lights and stop arms where the speed limit is 80 km/h or greater or when there is no curb and gutter present. In other words, school buses can stop traffic on our rural roads. However, the use of flashing lights and stop arms are still prohibited in most places where kids get dropped off.

You can click here to read one of the staff reports Council received in 2016.

You can click here to read a blog post Rory Tarant made during that conversation.


MY VIEW

When thinking about this issue, the safety of children must be THE main priority. Some have suggested that current policies have to do with maintaining traffic flow. That line of thought has no bearing on me. I am more than willing to slow down vehicle trips to make kids safer.

However, I do support our current prohibition of flashing lights and stop arms on most roads in the City. When it comes to children’s safety, policies must be evidence based. And all the evidence I’ve seen indicates that our current bylaw is the safest approach. I’ve found lots of articles and reports and a few academic studies to suggest that school bus stop arms in urban setting decrease kids’ safety. I haven’t found any that suggest they decrease accidents.

That being said: I’m always open to having my mind changed. If you have any evidence to suggest our current policies are dangerous: please send it to me.

I’ll also note that our current bylaw relies on kids crossing at intersections. And, while we see very few accidents on residential roads, many in our community feel unsafe with their kids walking in residential areas. I want kids to be safer getting to and from school, and I want parents to feel that their children are safe. For that reason, I’d love to see us invest more on curb cutouts, crossing signs, crosswalk beacons, and other engineering solutions to help pedestrians cross at intersections. I’ve been advocating for us to pay more attention to these measures and will continue to do so.