In the first month of the new school year, an Elkin City Schools bus driver was able to prevent a near tragedy when a motorist passed a stopped school bus.
Lisa Pendry, Elkin City School’s transportation director and assistant principal at Elkin High School, told Board of Education members Monday night that two students waiting to get on the bus did not see the approaching vehicle and were getting ready to cross the road.
The bus driver, however, “knew that car was not going to stop and laid down on the horn,” she said. “That’s actually policy per DPI (N.C. Department of Public Instruction) bus safety. If you are aware that there is any type of danger, you should blow the horn to try to alert the students.
“He handled it beautifully. We were very pleased. We’ve been very fortunate not to have any real tragedies, and we certainly want to keep that from happening.”
The bus the vehicle passed happened to be one of six buses installed with stoparm video cameras which record six viewpoints, including the vehicle approaching the bus, passing the bus and the rear of the vehicle showing the license plate. “We were able to watch the video, which was just horrifying,” Pendry said.
“It certainly helped us identify the offender,” she said, “and without the camera, when it happens so quickly, you can’t obtain all the information you need.”
Pendry said the videos were turned over to law enforcement. “We do that with any violations that we are aware of,” she said.
The evidence should make it easier to prosecute offenders. Motorists convicted of passing a stopped school bus get five points on their license and face a $500 minimum fine.
Pendry said some drivers are confused about when they are required to stop. Two situations for which motorists are not required to stop is when there is a divided highway of four lanes or more with a median separation and a roadway of four lanes or more with a center turning lane. In both instances, only traffic following buses must stop.
“If in doubt, stop,” she said. “You can’t go wrong stopping. Too many people are distracted or using their phones texting. The same goes for students. They need to be aware of their surroundings when they are crossing streets.”
New stop/caution procedures which go into effect Jan. 1 will require students planning to cross the road to wait until the driver gives them a hand signal to proceed. Pendry said the procedure is already in place in the Elkin City Schools.
Anyone uncertain about when they are supposed to stop can log onto www.ncbussafety.org. “People get confused,” Pendry said. “They know that there is a time that they’re not required to stop but they’re not sure what it is.
“The most important thing we can do is transport our students to and from schools safely,” she said, “and that requires a commitment by other drivers as well. We just really want to stress student safety and that people have got to focus on their driving and pay attention to school buses.”
At the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, State Superintendent June Atkinson cited student safety as a top priority for school bus drivers and school transportation staff in a DPI news release. “We want our students to arrive at school safely and to be delivered home safely,” she said. “That is why every North Carolina motorist should always remember to stop completely for the school bus’s flashing red lights and extended stop arm, and to watch for students around bus stops.”
For the past four years during the state’s one-day stop arm count, North Carolina school bus drivers reported that more than 3,000 vehicles illegally passed their stopped buses on a single day. Violations most often occur from the front of the bus on two lane roads. In the most troubling cases, drivers reported (83 instances in 2013-14) that motorists passed the bus on the right side — where students are loading and unloading.
Since 1999, 13 students have been killed while boarding or exiting a school bus; and four of those deaths occurred in the 2012-13 school year alone. North Carolina law requires motorists to stop and remain stopped while the bus has its stop sign and flashing red lights engaged.
In 2011, the North Carolina Governor’s Highway Safety Program funded a pilot program that placed seven external video camera systems on school buses in five school districts as a way to crack down on motorists passing stopped school buses. As of September 2013, 77 violations had been recorded and prosecuted through the court system, and no defense attorneys had challenged the video evidence.
Motorists who pass a stopped school bus can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor. If they pass a stopped school bus and strike a person, they can be charged with a Class I felony. If that person is killed, the motorist can be charged with a Class H felony. In addition, legislation passed in 2013 (Hasani N. Wesley Students’ School Bus Safety Act) imposes a minimum fine of $500, and under certain circumstances, license revocation. North Carolina state law allows photographic evidence to be used in court.
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 336-258-4058.