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Unsafe school bus passing a problem in Sauk County

January 22, 2019
A truck stops as required by law as a school bus stops on Highway 33 between Baraboo and Reedsburg.

When it comes to driving around school buses, it appears many Sauk County drivers need some education.

Drivers failing to obey school buses’ stop signs has become such an issue that the county’s Traffic Safety Commission is tackling the problem through education and enforcement. The Sauk County Sheriff’s Office has assigned extra patrols to Highway 33 between Baraboo and Reedsburg, where unsafe driving around buses has been most common.

“We’ve had a lot of problems with red light runners,” said Kristi Voelker, driver and safety manager for Kobussen Buses in Baraboo.

School buses display flashing yellow caution lights when they slow to a stop, then a stop sign and red flashing lights when they halt. A crossing bar extends in front of the bus to ensure students exit safely. Oncoming traffic must stop, as must traffic behind the bus.

Yet oncoming drivers frequently whiz right on by, and some even pass stopped buses on the right using turn lanes or shoulders. Voelker said she reports violators daily. Video cameras inside and outside the buses are used as evidence against offenders. Bus drivers submit reports to the sheriff’s office, which tracks down and cites scofflaws.

“I got one yesterday,” she said during an informational ride-along Wednesday.

Four times this month, the sheriff’s office is set to conduct special enforcement on Highway 33, where heavy traffic, narrow passing windows and the road’s winding design make passing hazardous. The presence of buses and farm machinery prompts some drivers to take unsafe risks.

“There are passing opportunities, but they’re limited,” said Lt. James Hodges of the Sheriff’s Office. “There are only so many places you can get around.”

Highway safety grants have paid to put extra squads at trouble spots like Highway 33, which has the county’s highest crash rate. Violators of bus safety laws get tickets, not warnings.

“You’ve got a lack of compliance there,” Hodges said. “It’s hard to be consistent with enforcement with the staff we have.”

During the Traffic Safety Commission’s next quarterly meeting Thursday, the group will address bus passing. It also will discuss how Highway 33, which is scheduled for a redesign, might be rebuilt more safely. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is among the stakeholders who will attend.

Voelker said unsafe passing was the subject of Kobussen’s internal safety meeting last week. “When you see a school bus, you know a stop sign is coming,” she said.

The group wants to inform the public that oncoming traffic must obey buses’ stop signs, even if there’s a turn lane in between. That law doesn’t apply when there’s a median in between.

“We’re trying to get rid of the confusion,” Voelker said.

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