HELENA — If you’re on the road and see a school bus with a longer stop arm than normal, take it as a sign to be especially cautious. The East Helena School District has outfitted one of its school buses with an extended arm in hopes of making the streets safer for its students.
It’s part of a trend that’s likely to keep growing across Montana, as a new state law could require some districts to add extended stop arms for the next school year.
East Helena Superintendent Dan Rispens says the district ordered a new bus last spring to help deal with growing enrollment – particularly from the addition of the new East Helena High School. After some delays, the bus arrived in the fall, with the longer arm attached.
“It was a bit of a surprise to us that it was installed, but it was a pleasant surprise,” Rispens said.
Traditionally, a stop arm has simply been a stop sign with flashing red lights that folds out from the side of a school bus. An extended arm is a several-foot-long metal bracket with a second stop sign, designed to partially obstruct the road and make it harder for drivers to miss the lights.
During last year’s state legislative session, lawmakers approved House Bill 267. Starting in July, it will require school buses to include an extended stop arm if the bus route has any stops where kids have to cross the street. Rispens estimates that his district currently has ten to 20 of those stops.
“Obviously we try to avoid that as much as we can, and we try to run our routes so our buses are mostly making right-hand turns and mostly picking kids up off the right side of the road, but there are situations,” he said.
School bus safety became a big topic during the legislative session, particularly because of the case of Jordana Hubble – a 6-year-old Whitefish girl who was struck and severely injured after getting off the bus in 2019.
While an extended arm is intended to make clear that drivers need to stop for the flashing lights, Rispens said his bus drivers are still seeing people passing on the stop signs.
“We just ask that people don’t get impatient with the school buses, because our most precious citizens are riding on those buses, and we want to keep all the kids safe,” he said.
Not every district will have to add invest in extended stop arms. HB 267 gives them the option of simply changing their bus routes to make sure students won’t have to cross the street.
Rispens said they’re planning to redesign the routes, rather than spending the roughly $35,000 it would take to retrofit the rest of their 11 buses. However, he said they will get extended arms on all new buses they bring in.
East Helena Public Schools has already purchased a new “clean diesel” bus with help from a Montana Department of Environmental Quality grant. Rispens said the district has also applied for another grant to help pay for a fully electric bus. He said there could be benefits to electric vehicles – like potentially lower fuel and maintenance costs – but he’s not sure they’ll meet the needs of a rural district in a cold-weather environment.
“We want to see how that pans out and if it really lives up to the hype, but we don’t want to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to try it out,” he said. “The grant gives us the opportunity.”
Besides the stop arm rules, HB 267 also prohibited drivers from passing a school bus on the right and increased penalties for passing while the flashing red lights are on.
From Sept. 1 through Jan. 13, Helena Public Schools made 58 reports to the Montana Highway Patrol of drivers passing a bus with its stop arm out and lights flashing. 43 of those incidents occurred after Oct. 15, when they added new high-definition cameras to help identify the license plate numbers of vehicles passing the stop arm.
A district spokesperson says their bus contractor, First Student, plans to install extended stop arms on all of their buses over the summer and will have them ready for the start of the next school year.
The Montana Office of Public Instruction has information on HB 267 and the changes to school bus standards on its website.