Bus driver Mickey Reed was dropping off Byron Primary School students on his typical afternoon route one day last fall when his worst fear happened.

He stopped at a T-intersection to drop off some of the many students he is responsible for each day.

After carefully surveying the surroundings and with the bus' stop arm out, he waved the children ahead. A few seconds later he noticed a car speeding along and had a feeling that it was not going to stop.

Quickly, Reed honked his horn to try to alert the student, hoping the car would slow down. It didn't, and the side of the car swiped a kindergarten girl.

"It was disappointing to see the disregard for [the stop arm]," Reed said. "Thankfully, I was relieved to see her get up and start walking."

On Wednesday, faculty, parents and students from many school districts will be showing their appreciation for school bus drivers across the state on the third annual School Bus Driver Appreciation Day.

Even the Interstate 35W bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis will be illuminated yellow to show thanks to the drivers who protect and transport more than 760,000 students each day throughout Minnesota.

Three years ago, the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association and the Minnesota Association of Pupil Transportation collaborated to establish a day of recognition for these "noble professionals," as the organizers refer to them.

"It's a profession filled with great people, hard workers and individuals dedicated to safety, so it's really worth recognizing them," School Bus Operators President Garrett Regan said.

Aside from student-made cards, coffee, doughnuts and maybe even some pancakes for the drivers, this year's celebration will highlight the biggest responsibility each one has: safety.

The problem of motorists disregarding buses' stop arms puts not only students getting off the bus at risk, but also students on the bus and the driver.

"It's been an ongoing issue for many years," said Lt. Brian Reu of the State Patrol. "It's not just a Minnesota issue, it's nationwide."

Every April for almost a decade, the State Patrol has asked school bus drivers to report every stop arm violation they encountered on a specific day. Last year, "we had almost 3,000 bus driver responses … [and] we had almost 600 violations with people going by their school buses with the stop arm out," Reu said.

Like fellow driver Reed, St. Paul Public Schools bus operator Ed Lacy has watched the number of drivers ignoring the stop arm skyrocket over his 20-year career.

"Well, you almost go into or have an attitude in today's world of driving knowing that there is a higher probability" of motorists ignoring the stop arm, Lacy said. "In my role of getting students to and from school, safety is the top priority to me."

Tom Burr, director of transportation for the St. Paul schools, says that the district prepares drivers for these situations. But he has recently learned of products designed to make the use of crosswalks safer.

One such product is the Guardian Angel, which he's quick to point out is illegal in Minnesota. The wearable personal safety light illuminates a path and helps motorists see students more clearly, he said, adding that there is some discussion on how to make the product legal in the state.

As the bus drivers prepare for their day of recognition Wednesday morning, their job's daily reward remains the same.

"Seeing the smiles and just the happy kids," Lacy said. "Getting them to and from school safely during challenging road conditions, and then seeing them reunited with their parents and family is rewarding enough."

David Mullen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.