Students were said to be quite well-behaved Thursday on Panama-Buena Vista Union School District's bus No. 13.
That's because California Highway Patrol Officer Frank Banuelos — in full uniform — was riding on the big yellow school bus with dozens of Stonecreek Junior High School students as part of a statewide effort to focus on motorists who fail to stop for school buses that have their flashing red lights activated and stop arm extended.
When drivers ignore the law and blow through the safety zone that should be established by the flashing red lights on a school bus, it puts students' safety at risk, said Officer Robert Rodriguez, a spokesman for the CHP's Bakersfield office.
"And it's a very hefty fine if you're cited," Rodriguez said. "Almost a thousand dollars."
As part of the statewide school bus pedestrian safety operation, Banuelos rode on the bus and communicated with three motor officers who waited near each bus stop, alert for violators.
According to California Vehicle Code 22454, drivers are prohibited from passing a school bus from either direction when the bus is stopped on a two-lane road for the purpose of loading or unloading any school children; and the bus displays flashing red lights and/or a stop signal arm.
“Yellow flashing lights on a school bus warn a driver to slow down and prepare to stop,” a CHP news release says. “If the school bus is on the other side of a divided or multi-lane highway (two or more lanes in each direction), you do not need to stop.”
In October 2016, the California Association of School Transportation Officials reached out to the CHP for assistance concerning school bus pedestrian safety. The group provided the results of the annual California Department of Education School Bus Illegal Passing Driver Survey. The one-day statewide survey of 137 school districts and nine school bus contractors found that more than 26,000 motorists failed to stop for school buses that were stopped to load or unload students.
Any way you look at it, that's a dismal sign that drivers are either ignorant of the law or just elect to ignore it.
On Thursday, the three motor officers, Kevin Perkins, Art Guerra and Mark McGary waited beside Bugni Hardware & Feed for bus No. 13 to arrive. When it did they watched as motorists behind the bus stopped for the flashing red lights.
It appeared there were no violators at this stop, although McGary said three citations have been written so far this week, one of them earlier Thursday, and a verbal warning was also given.
Stonecreek eighth-grader Jose Sandoval said he hasn't noticed that drivers routinely ignore the flashing reds. Most are pretty respectful, he said, and the students rarely need to cross the busy lanes of traffic anyway.
But a few minutes after bus No. 13 headed west on Taft Highway, another Panama-Buena Vista bus dropped off a student. As this reporter stopped to the rear as the red lights flashed and the stop signal arm was activated, a driver in a white pickup traveling east on the highway drove right through the safety zone.
Unfortunately, the CHP officers were gone.