Over the last three years, five students in North Carolina have been killed and five more injured by drivers passing stopped school buses. These tragic statistics have prompted continued efforts to improve safety through tougher laws and stronger enforcement. Starting this year, those legal remedies are being supplemented by a new system of three hand signals that bus drivers will use to tell students when it is safe to cross the road.
First, the driver will hold up his or her palm facing the student to signal “not yet.” Second, the driver gives a “thumbs up” to the student. Third, the driver uses his or her index finger to show the direction in which the child should cross the street. A graphic presentation of this signaling is available online at www.ncbussafety.org/safetylessons.
Parts of this safety policy were piloted in Washington County Schools last April. The school system’s Director of Transportation Wesley Stokes says the new system “worked immediately” to improve student safety. “Even though the kids hadn’t been trained yet, when they saw the hand signal, I saw them stop right in their tracks and wait until the student transporter signaled to cross.” According to research conducted by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction Transportation Services section, most school bus-related student injuries and fatalities stem from drivers who disregard the school bus sign. Derek Graham, section chief of NCDPI School Transportation Services, says that the new hand signals “are an effort to help keep students safe even when motorists don’t adhere to the law.”
Jeff Lyons, transportation director for the Watauga County Schools, says that the hand signals will help, but that the key to preventing deaths and injuries is attentive and concerned drivers. “It’s never justified to put a child’s life at risk just to shave a minute off your travel time,” he commented. “These tragedies can be avoided if drivers pay attention to the stop arms and flashing red lights on the bus when it stops to pick up or unload students.”
For drivers not sufficiently motivated by student safety, there are legal and financial consequences to consider. The penalties for passing a stopped school bus include a minimum fine of $500, and a driver who hits a child in the process will receive a fine of at least $1,250 and will be guilty of a Class I Felony. To make sure drivers don’t escape the penalties, the NC Division of Motor Vehicles withholds the renewal of registration for drivers who don’t pay the fine. Repeat offenders will have their licenses revoked for at least a year and could permanently lose their license.
Even if no one is hurt, the expense of passing a stopped school bus doesn’t stop with the fines. A conviction for passing a stopped school bus adds 5 points to a driver’s license for a personal vehicle and 9 points for a commercial license. These extra points can cost the offender thousands of dollars in higher insurance rates over the next several years. Thanks to advanced stop arm cameras on many school buses, it’s unlikely a driver will escape being charged and convicted for passing a stopped bus. The cameras capture clear images of the car’s driver and license tag, providing airtight evidence for prosecution.
Lyons hopes that motorists’ increased concern for students and fear of prosecution, in combination with the new hand signals, will make it safer than ever for children to use school buses. “There is no reason for any child to be hurt or killed by someone passing a stopped school bus,” said Lyons. “We urge everyone to do their part in keeping students safe.”