By ERIN ROLL
Motorists be warned: Don’t even think about going around that stopped school bus, or risk getting a $250 fine and a court appearance.
During the month of March, the Montclair Police Department will have zero tolerance when it comes to school bus safety.
Police will follow buses with the intention of catching drivers who are driving aggressively near a school bus in transit. This includes drivers who attempt to drive around a school bus while it is stopped or passing a bus with its red flashing lights on.
“Officers have been, and will continue to follow school buses in unmarked police vehicles. Officers are addressing drivers who drive aggressively near school buses, and more importantly, those who do not stop for stopped school buses,” an announcement by MPD reads.
Officer John Bossolt, who heads up the safety patrol, said police began looking into the idea of a patrol initiative in November in the wake of several fatal accidents involving school buses in 2018.
A school bus carrying students from Paramus on a field trip crashed on I-80 near Mount Olive in May, resulting in the death of one student and a chaperone. That accident resulted in legislation requiring all new school buses to have three-point seat belts installed on them.
The traffic bureau spent four weeks working on a patrol schedule, including determining which bus routes to follow, and when.
The patrol is concentrating on the morning bus run for the time being. “Because everyone’s in a rush on the way to work,” Bossolt said.
Unmarked police cars will follow one bus for five to six minutes on its way to school, and then start to follow another bus.
Drivers caught illegally passing a bus will get ticketed, Bossolt said. “We’re having zero tolerance with this. We’re taking this very seriously.”
He noted that outside of Montclair, some school districts and bus carriers have installed exterior-mounted cameras in an effort to catch drivers who illegally pass.
In many cases, he said, the drivers who pass a bus are in such a rush to get somewhere that they’re not paying attention. “We’ve actually stopped parents with school kids in the car on the way to school,” Bossolt said. “They’ll say, ‘I didn’t even see it.’”
Most citizen complaints concerning drivers cutting around buses come from parents who witness the violations, Bossolt said. More people are aware of traffic infractions and safety issues due in part to people venting about them on social media, he said.
Drivers cutting around stopped buses have been a source of concern for school staff and bus drivers in Montclair for several years, Superintendent Kendra Johnson said.
“They tell us that in recent years the number of drivers that ignore the school bus stop arm have increased, especially on streets like Grove Street and Valley Road,” Johnson said.
She said the district was grateful to the police for doing the safety patrols, and confirmed that officers had visited the school to discuss the patrol with staff.
According to the American School Bus Council, two-thirds of fatal accidents involving school buses happen while children are getting on or off the bus. Many of these fatalities happen when a vehicle passes the bus while its stop sign is extended, the council states.
Under New Jersey state law, if a bus has its flashing red lights on and its stop sign extended, other motorists must stop 25 feet from the bus, whether or not they are traveling in the same direction as the bus. Drivers must remain stopped until the bus’s flashing red lights have turned off and the stop sign has been pulled back in.
If the bus is stopped in front of a school to pick up or drop off children, drivers may pass, but no faster than 10 miles per hour.
If the bus is on the other side of a divided highway, motorists traveling in the opposite lane must reduce their speed to 10 miles per hour while the bus has its red flashing lights turned on.
Penalties for illegally passing a school bus could include a fine up to $250, 15 days in jail or 15 days of community service. A ticket could result in five points. A court appearance is also mandatory.
Bossolt said the police will continue with enforcement around school buses throughout the year. The department also hopes to conduct an awareness campaign, with help from North Jersey AAA, at coffee shops around Montclair in the fall.
Residents and motorists who are aware of problem areas involving aggressive drivers and school buses are asked to contact the Montclair Traffic Bureau at 973-509-4738 and ask for Officer Bossolt.