We have all seen the school bus on the rural road with the flashing lights and stop arm extended. It's common and we likely don't think anything of it. On first reflection, the idea of school buses using the flashing lights and stop arm in an urban area would seems to increase safety too. If it works in the rural areas, why not the urban? Our school transportation experts disagree, though, and helped us understand how this practice can actually impede safety in an urban area.
There are many differences between our urban and rural roads and we need to approach safety with these differences in mind. Rural roads generally have higher speed limits, no sidewalks or crosswalks and a lack of stop signs or other traffic control devices. Buses in rural areas drop kids off across from their driveway. In urban areas, children are dropped off in groups within easy walking distance to intersections and crosswalks. We teach our children to "Point, Pause & Proceed" when they want to cross a road, and that they ought to do so at an intersection or a crosswalk. If a bus uses the flashing lights, however, the children are to cross right in front of the bus, rather than to walk to the nearest intersection or crosswalk.
There is an overall concern with driver compliance to stopping for the buses as well. Children can rely on the expectation that these vehicles will stop, however, they can not see past the bus. In an urban setting, there are frequent opportunities to cross at a marked crosswalk or intersection (unlike in the rural areas). Jurisdictions who permit the flashing light usage have identified compliance as an issue.
Alberta winters also compound the safety issue. Where intersections are cleared of snow and windrows, not all jurisdictions clear these between intersections, so if a child needs to cross mid-block, it might require climbing over windrows either along the side or the middle of the road.
Originally, the practice of school buses using the flashing lights and stop arms to stop traffic was intended only for rural roads. In 1986, the Alberta government allowed municipalities to make the decision to allow this practice, however the then Transportation Minister, Alan Adair, acknowledged, "Where well marked intersections and roadways are present, it is actually safer to use those markings and devices than use the flashing bus lights."
As a group, we believe, based on best practices in the industry, as well as, research, that it is safer for municipalities to ban the use of the flashing lights within their urban boundaries.
For more information, see our Flashing Lights in Urban Areas page under the Best Practices section.