Motorists now face stricter penalties for passing a stopped school bus. In July, Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law a new school bus safety law which requires higher fines for violations and the possibility of license loss for repeat offenders.
The law is named for a Hasani Wesley, a Forsyth County sixth-grader who was killed while trying to cross the street to his bus. Despite campaigns such as the National School Bus Safety Week each October in North Carolina to raise awareness of the dangers of passing stopped school buses, children continue to be killed at bus stops. During the past year in North Carolina, four children were killed because drivers ignored the stop arm of a school bus. The youngest of these four children was only seven years old according to the state transportation office of the Department of Public Instruction.
Drivers passing stopped school buses have become a serious problem for North Carolina. According to the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV), there have been 12 recorded deaths of children hit when crossing the road to or from the school bus since 1998. However, in 2012, North Carolina police charged 1,316 drivers with stop-arm violations.
School bus safety laws state that drivers must stop when the stop-arm is out and the red lights are flashing on a school bus. For two-lane roads with a center turning lane, all traffic must stop on both sides. For four-lane roads without a median, all traffic must stop in all lanes. On divided highways with four lanes or more and there is a median, only traffic on the side of the bus must stop. On roads with four lands or more and there is a center turning lane, only drivers on the same side of the bus have to stop.
It is not only highly dangerous, but also illegal to pass a stopped school bus. According to the new state penalties, a driver who passes a stopped school bus is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor and has to pay a minimum fine of $500, an increase from the former $200 maximum. If a motorist hits a person, it becomes a felony, and the fine increases to $1,250. If the driver causes death, the minimum fine goes up to $2,500. The N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles will not allow renewal of the driver’s license until the fine is paid.
Offenders also will face points added to a driver’s license which can increase the cost of automobile insurance, and repeat offenders could lose their driver’s license for a year or more.
According to Cassundra Morrison, Elkin City Schools Transportation Director, a total of roughly 740 children ride the bus to or from Elkin City Schools. The buses to school in the morning have many of the younger children, but even more children ride home in the afternoon. Some of the earliest routes begin at 6:30 a.m., when it is still very dark, and drivers are tired and less attentive, which contributes greatly to the risk of running past a stopped school bus.
Elkin City Schools has seven buses, with eight drivers. Morrison pointed out that bus drivers are hired because they are “dependable, generally good with children, have good health, a low number of traffic incidents, and no criminal record.”
However, as Morrison said, “these bus drivers keep the children as safe as they can, but even they cannot prevent what they cannot control.” The only ones who can stop the senseless deaths of children are those who cause them.