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At the high school I go to, our school district's transportation department (likely due to budget reasons) has allocated more students onto one bus than its maximum capacity, resulting in kids sitting in the aisles, or hanging off of a seat. I've found what I believe is my state's related law (WAC 392-145-021) which states that

No school bus shall be operated unless each passenger aboard has been provided with a safe seat of sufficient size to accommodate each passenger within the seat compartment. There shall be no auxiliary seating accommodations such as temporary or folding jump seats in any school bus. Students shall remain seated while the school bus is in motion.

I realize that as kids need to go home, the bus driver needs to drive despite the conditions of the bus (also, to keep their job I presume) and so it isn't their fault. However, I'm curious if, in the eyes of the law, the bus driver is held accountable for operating the vehicle.

On top of that, is there a case to be made that could protect them?

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    You can bet if something were to happen they'd totally throw you under the bus.
    – eps
    Jan 9 at 22:08
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    Honestly this sounds like something your local news outlet would be very interested to hear about.
    – David K
    Jan 10 at 16:08
  • How is the maximum capacity of the bus determined? "safe seat of sufficient size" seems open to some interpretation. If there were seat belts, I would assume the number of seat belts dictates the number of legal passengers. But without seat belts, would it not be possible to squeeze 3 or 4 students into a bench, at least long enough for the first few stops to be made?
    – spuck
    Jan 10 at 22:10
  • @spuck While I suppose there is room for interpretation there, backpack sizes + occasional instruments, etc. make it unrealistic for many seats to have more than two people having "sufficient" space to sit safely on the seat. Jan 12 at 18:02

3 Answers 3

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I realize that as kids need to go home, the bus driver needs to drive despite the conditions of the bus

Not really. The driver should refuse to drive the bus with too many passengers. If that were to happen, the person responsible for assigning too many students to the bus would be liable for the children (or some of them) not getting home.

As it is, both that person and the driver risk civil and criminal liability in case of injury or death, and the driver is breaking the law by driving the bus with too many passengers.

The need is not for the kids to get home, but for the kids to get home safely. Consider other possible "conditions of the bus": should the driver drive the bus if the brake lights aren't working or if the tires are bald?

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    Add a storm approaching and watch the result flip. Non-joke. Under-budget schools and winter storm prone areas go together.
    – Joshua
    Jan 9 at 19:03
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    @Joshua Driver should still refuse. Difficult weather conditions means it's even more important that the bus should be loaded safely, the kids in the aisles are really in trouble if there's an accident. Jan 9 at 19:19
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    @Joshua there is a simple solution: The driver needs to make two rounds, and the school needs to account for that, e.g. let go students of classes A-B now and C-D in the second tour, sheltering the second tour students till the return of the bus.
    – Trish
    Jan 9 at 19:29
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    @Trish: I've seen the case where two rounds wasn't possible due to the amount of time the bus would take to traverse the critical route section already.
    – Joshua
    Jan 9 at 20:06
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    Whether the illegal practice could be avoided is completely beside the point. The authorities have made plans which are not sustainable, and they should be held accountable.
    – tripleee
    Jan 10 at 10:41
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I realize that as kids need to go home, the bus driver needs to drive despite the conditions of the bus (also, to keep their job I presume) and so it isn't their fault, however I'm curious if in the eyes of the law, the bus driver is held accountable for operating the vehicle.

On top of that, is there a case to be made that could protect them?

The bus driver is legally responsible even if he is ordered by his employer to break the law, on pain of being fired for failing to do so. The bus driver has no protection from legal liability and neither does his employer.

If his employer does discipline or fire him for insisting on acting legally, he probably has remedies for wrongful termination of employment.

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    Is coercion never a defense from civil or criminal liability in WA? Or just unlikely that the threats of an employer would amount to coercion?
    – Will
    Jan 9 at 13:39
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    @Will Sounds like you're thinking of the TV trope of someone being coerced to commit a crime on threat of violence to their family. IANAL, but I suspect it would have to be something serious like this, not just losing your job (since they can sue for wrongful termination).
    – Barmar
    Jan 9 at 15:32
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    @Barmar IANALE which is why I sought the clarification. Naively investigating it looks like it is a subject that goes somewhat beyond TV tropes, and while most jurisdictions seem to require a physical threat for duress to be a criminal defense, an unlawful economic threat such as that in the question is commonly sufficient to invalidate a contract; so I wouldn't assume where that leaves other civil matters.
    – Will
    Jan 9 at 16:03
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WAC 392-145-021 is to be obeyed by the local school district, pursuant to regulations set forth and enforced by the superintendent of public instruction. 392-145-016 separately states rules that are supposed to be created for students to obey, and 392-145-031 sets forth drive requirements. The issue you point to is not a "driver requirement". It is possible that the school district has a policy disallowing drivers from driving an overloaded bus, but not following employer rules is not breaking the law. The district cannot argue that they are "forced" to break the law, instead, they are required to get more buses and drivers. Whether or not the driver should take a labor-action stance is a rather complicated and separate political question.

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    You ignore the fact that the traffic code applies to the school bus and might ban the driver from even moving the bus legally overloaded.
    – Trish
    Jan 8 at 22:58
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    I'm confused by your sentence beginning with "It is possible..." Whether the employer has that rule or not is immaterial, as the state Superintendent was given authority to set the rules and has done so, and violation is unlawful. Jan 9 at 11:22
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    Pretty sure every traffic code in existence starts with something like "only operate vehicles in a safe manner" and having kids sitting in the aisles is clearly unsafe. So yes, the driver would be breaking the actual law. Jan 9 at 19:15
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    Unlike 031 or 011, 021(1) doesn't state who it's binding on. Instead, it begins "No school bus shall be operated..." -- it applies to everyone involved in the operation of the school bus.
    – Mark
    Jan 10 at 3:47
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    @user3067860 "is clearly unsafe" it is clearly unsafe to you but is it actually forbidden here? Urban public transport buses often carry standing passengers. I even know one line in Prague that does that on a motorway (80 kph). Jan 11 at 13:13

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