As local schools prepare to welcome back students August 18th, school officials are urging motorists to exercise extra caution around school buses.
Jeff Lyons, transportation director for the Watauga County Schools, says that too many drivers can leave child safety behind as they rush to their destinations. “We all get in a hurry sometimes, but there’s no excuse for putting a child’s life at risk just to shave a minute off your travel time,” remarked Lyons. His concern about putting a child’s life at risk is well justified. In the last four years, five children in North Carolina have been killed crossing the street to or from a school bus.
“These tragedies could so easily have been prevented if drivers had paid attention to the stop arms and flashing red lights on the bus as it stops to pick up or unload students,” commented Lyons. “The families of the students who died would tell you that a minute of patience would have made a lifetime difference for their child.”
The extent of the problem is evident in the annual one day count of how many vehicles pass a stopped school bus in NC. The statewide tally for 2014 was 3,153, including 13 in Watauga County.
For drivers not sufficiently motivated by student safety alone, there are also legal and financial consequences to consider. The 2012 session of the NC General Assembly enacted stiffer penalties for passing a stopped school bus, including a minimum fine of $500, a big increase from the previous $200 maximum. 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 increased penalties, the NC Division of Motor Vehicles will withhold the renewal of registration for drivers who don’t pay their 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 the recent installation of more advanced stop arm cameras on school buses, it’s becoming very unlikely a driver will escape being identified, charged, and convicted for passing a stopped bus. The new cameras identify not only the vehicle, but also capture good images of the car’s driver and license tag, providing airtight evidence for prosecution.
While inattentive motorists remain a concern, the overall safety record of school buses is outstanding. The Fatality Analysis System of the U.S. Department of Transportation shows that a child is about 60 times more likely to be hurt in a personal vehicle than in a school bus. Still, Lyons is convinced riding a school bus can be even safer with more cooperation from motorists.
“There is just no reason for any child to ever be hurt or killed by someone passing a stopped school bus,” said Lyons. “Safety is always the number one priority for our bus drivers. It should be the number one priority for every other driver as well.”