Halt…or face stiffer fines

Published 6:12 pm Sunday, July 14, 2013

RALEIGH – Last week a school bus safety law named for a Kernersville sixth-grader passed the North Carolina Senate and is headed to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk for his signature.

Hasani N. Wesley of Forsyth County died last December as a result of being struck by a motorist, a Walkertown minister, who illegally passed his stopped school bus as the young student was crossing the road.

The recent school year was one of the worst in memory for children killed by drivers who did not stop for school buses. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, there have been a total of 12 deaths recorded since 1998.  Four such deaths occurred in the most recent school year.

Police across North Carolina charged 1,316 drivers with school bus red stop sign-arm violations in 2012, up from 1,140 in 2007.

Two Winston-Salem area legislators, Democrat Edward Hanes, Jr. and Republican Donny C. Lambeth, co-sponsored House Bill 428, renamed the Hasani Wesley Students’ School Bus Safety Act. In the law, a driver who hits a child and faces a felony would receive a minimum $1,250 fine. A conviction resulting in death would mean a fine of at least $2,500. Drivers convicted of repeat violations would have their licenses revoked for a year and possibly permanently; though the motorist could get limited driving privileges.

The law imposes harsher penalties on drivers who fail to halt for stopped school buses in the process of loading or unloading students.

Enforcing school bus stop laws is a challenge because both the vehicle and the driver must be clearly identified to gain a conviction.

Fortunately, there have been no school bus stop violation fatalities in the Roanoke-Chowan area.  While administrators are proud of that statistic, they are still vigilant.

“I’m not that familiar with the law,” said Bertie County Schools Superintendent Elaine White. “But I think anyone who passes a (stopped) school bus should be given the maximum penalty.”

She added, “I see cars sometimes taking chances trying to beat the stop-arm. Children are our most precious resource; and anybody so guilty they can’t stop for a school bus should receive the maximum.”

Hertford County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Perry says because students boarding and de-boarding buses are in such a precarious position, the penalties need to be stiffer.

“Any action that stiffens the punishment for passing a stopped school bus, I welcome,” he said.

Perry went on to add, “If a child gets hit or killed there’s nothing that will mollify this or make it better to their loved ones. But if any legislation or statute causes drivers to hesitate or become more focused, then I’m for it.

“The fines are a bit on the low side, if you ask me; after all, these are children and they are totally helpless when going to and from the bus.”

The bill encourages school boards across the state to use the collected fines to install cameras on buses as an additional means to identifying violators. According to its sponsors they are looking at additional safety measures, including extending bus stop-arms to make them more visible.

“I’m for anything that we can do to make the roads safer for our bus drivers as well as the students who use them,” said Northampton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy.

“It’s always a tragedy when something like that happens,” he added. “Drivers need to pay attention, slow down, and be prepared to stop. It’s always easier to stop once you slow down. Maybe these new increased fines and the threat of a revoked license will get people’s attention.”

The N.C. State Institution for Transportation Research and Education estimates that 3,200 vehicles illegally pass stopped school buses on an average school day. That equals out to 576,000 violators every school year.

“I was aware the law was being presented in the legislature and I am very much in support of it,” said Gates County Schools Transportation Director Janet Mizelle. “I’m glad that it’s been passed because there is a problem with people passing stopped school buses.”

She added, “Once a year it’s required that all school bus drivers take a refresher course on stop-arm procedure, stopping distance, backing up, and other safety items. In Gates County we do that just before the school year starts in the late summer, and then we have two more safety meetings in the fall and spring.”

Mizelle says there is information on the Gates County Public Schools website for motorists describing what a stop-arm violation is.

“Fortunately, we have had no injuries or fatalities in Gates County, she says. “The new law may not increase the fines by very much, but at least it’s better than before.”

What to do when

a school bus stops

Drivers are required to stop, in most situations, when a school bus stops to discharge or pick-up passengers and activates its flashing red lights and stop arm. On multi-lane divided roads, drivers traveling in the opposite direction are not required to stop.

All traffic in both directions must stop for a stopped school bus on a two-lane road, a two-lane road with center median or turning lane, or a four-lane road without a median separator.

Traffic following the bus must stop on a road with at least four lanes and a center median or turning lane.

Information is courtesy of NCDMV and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction