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Slow down, commuters, school is back in session

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image The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office will be stepping up patrols around area schools to ensure the safety of the children, particularly in school zones and crosswalks. Photo Mitch Traphagen

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is focusing this year on school bus safety, and has produced a video to educate drivers about the legalities of passing a stopped bus.

By Mitch Traphagen
A summer of breezing through school zones during the morning rush hour came to a close on Tuesday as approximately 200,000 students returned to classes in Hillsborough County, opening the 2013-2014 school year. Students in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties returned to school on Monday.

And from Tuesday onward, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office will be taking the “protect” part of the oft-said law enforcement motto seriously. Drivers accustomed to less traffic and regular speed limits on the roads during summer must now be aware of school zone speed limits, stopped school buses, children walking to school and children on bicycles.

The HCSO kicked off its new school bus safety initiative called, “Got Brakes?” The public awareness campaign is aimed at educating motorists about when they do and do not have to stop for a school bus, an occasionally perplexing problem for drivers, particularly on multi-lane roads.

The department has released a YouTube video to help explain the laws. That video is available at www.tinyurl.com/observer-schoolbus.

Additionally, parents are likely to see increased security at county schools and although the school board ultimately did not provide funding for additional armed guards, officers will be out in force around schools keeping an eye on the kids and on motorists who fail to heed the laws regarding stopped school buses and school crossing zones.

The laws regarding school buses in Florida and in Hillsborough County are as follows:

(1) (a) Any person using, operating, or driving a vehicle on or over the roads or highways of this state shall, upon approaching any school bus which displays a stop signal, bring such vehicle to a full stop while the bus is stopped, and the vehicle shall not pass the school bus until the signal has been withdrawn. A person who violates this section commits a moving violation.

(b) Any person using, operating, or driving a vehicle that passes a school bus on the side that children enter and exit when the school bus displays a stop signal commits a moving violation, and is subject to a mandatory hearing.

(2) The driver of a vehicle upon a divided highway with an unpaved space of at least 5 feet, a raised median, or a physical barrier is not required to stop when traveling in the opposite direction of a school bus, which is stopped in accordance with the provisions of this section.

(3) Every school bus shall stop as far to the right of the street as possible and shall display warning lights and stop signals as required by rules of the State Board of Education before discharging or loading passengers. When possible, a school bus shall not stop where the visibility is obscured for a distance of 200 feet either way from the bus.

According to HCSO Public Information Office Larry McKinnon, “Drivers who pass a school bus illegally on the left side commit a moving violation. Drivers who pass a school bus illegally where students enter or exit the bus commit a moving violation, and are subject to a mandatory hearing. Fines could range from $165-265 dollars and may include significant time of your driver’s license being suspended.”

Although students returned to school on Tuesday, many area commuters may have seen school buses out in force on Monday as the district kicked off a full-scale practice run for bus drivers on both morning and afternoon routes. Parents, particularly those of special needs children, were encouraged to walk their children to their bus stop for the morning practice run. Despite the buses being empty, all laws regarding stopped school buses were in force on Monday.

For commuters, the increase in traffic will be most noticeable in the vicinity of elementary schools and high schools during the morning rush hour with start times at 8 a.m. and approximately 7:30 a.m., respectively. Middle schools are the most likely to impact afternoon rush hour with release times at approximately 4:15 p.m.

In South Hillsborough, several elementary schools are located adjacent to heavily traveled highways and are subject to school zone speed limits, which are significantly less than the normal operating limits.

The Hillsborough County School District operates 1,100 buses, transporting approximately 91,000 students each day. The district is the third largest in Florida and the eighth largest in the nation.

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