Every day in Union County, more than 40 motorists pass stopped school buses, risking the lives of countless children as they get on and off the school bus.
“That (number of violations) is pretty consistent across the state,” said UCPS Transportation Director Adam Johnson. “And as Union County continues to grow, the increased volume of traffic, the increased number of buses, people from different areas who may not know our traffic laws, I think that number will probably increase.”
There will be 295 buses traveling on Union County streets during the upcoming 2007-08 school year. This is an increase of 30 buses over last year, which traveled approximately 24,000 miles daily, and 4 million miles during the past school year.
This past spring, a car narrowly missed striking a student attempting to board a bus on NC 84. The bus driver, who had her yellow caution lights flashing for oncoming traffic warning that she was stopping, saw a car traveling at a high rate of speed toward the bus just as the little girl began crossing into the street.
“She started blowing her horn to let the little girl know to wait,” Johnson said. “The child stopped just short of stepping into the path of the car, which at that point, could not stop. The man driving didn’t see the child until he was at the stopped bus. He said since the bus had the yellow lights on and not the stop sign, he thought he could make it through.”
The driver was charged with failure to stop for a stopped school bus, lost five points off his drivers license, which resulted in significant increases in his insurance rates.
If a person is convicted of passing a stopped school bus, State Farm Insurance representative Chris Hullender said this conviction carries the loss of four insurance points, usually resulting in a rate increase of 80 percent.
Had the student been struck, the charges would have gone from a misdemeanor to a felony. Tate Helms, Union County Assistant District Attorney, said passing a stopped school bus is a Class One misdemeanor, punishable by up to 120 days in the county jail and fines that are discretionary by the court.
If a motorist passes a stopped school bus and strikes a child causing bodily injury, however, Tate Helms said the driver would be charged with a Class I felony, punishable by up to 15 months in prison and given fines discretionary by the court. Both the misdemeanor and felony charges require mandatory court appearances.
About four years ago, an elementary school student was not as lucky as the student this past spring. Former Transportation Director Jerry Helms said an elementary school student was struck by a car on Walkup Avenue, sending the child to the hospital. Luckily, the student wasn’t seriously injured.
The driver, however, suffered significant financial consequences after being convicted of failure to yield for a stopped school bus. Jerry Helms said the conviction rate for this charge is very high.
“There is probably a 95- to 99-percent conviction rate,” he said. “I’ve never seen anyone get a ‘not guilty’ verdict. I think it’s because it deals with children and safety involving school buses, and in this area, I think the judges are pretty tough.”
Johnson said some drivers view the yellow lights on school buses as the time to speed up, trying to pass the bus before the stop arm comes out; similar to individuals who try to speed through a caution light before it changes to red. Johnson said buses begin flashing their yellow lights about 300 feet in advance of a stop. The red lights do not come on until the bus is actually stopped and the doors open. Therefore, if a motorist waits until he sees the red lights and the stop arm, it’s too late.
“Sometimes children run out in front of the bus, so motorists need to be extra careful when they see those yellow lights on the school bus because it means they are getting ready to stop,” Johnson said.
“It’s amazing to me that more students aren’t hurt,” Jerry Helms said, adding that the high number of motorists passing stopped buses has been a problem for years.
It’s not uncommon for motorists to drive recklessly when approaching a school bus, endangering not only himself or herself, but also the children on the school bus.
“Many times motorist will drive aggressively and recklessly, trying to get around these buses that are driving in a safe manner,” said Jarod McCraw, the UCPS Safety Director. “They’ll pass them on double yellow lines, they’ll pass when the bus’ yellow lights are flashing. Instead of proceeding with caution when the yellow lights come on, they’ll actually speed up. Sometimes they’ll actually pass the bus when the stop sign arm is out and the red lights are flashing.”
When a bus driver witnesses a motorist passing his stopped school bus, he takes the car’s tag number, a description of the driver and the vehicle, and then passes this on to bus transportation officials. This is then forwarded onto the NC Highway Patrol or the appropriate law enforcement agency.
“When you see the amber lights on a school bus, you need to go ahead and start slowing down,” said NC Highway Patrol Trooper Mark Helms. “They only turn those on to give notice that they’re getting ready to initiate the red lights and getting ready to stop.”
Trooper Helms said there has been a concerted effort to monitor school buses and catch motorists breaking the law. “Troopers will follow school buses to catch violators,” he said. “We’ve even had troopers on the school buses. They call in by walkie talkie the vehicle’s description and tag number to area patrol cars.”
There are clear guidelines when a car can pass a stopped school bus. For diagrams that better explain this, go to http://www.nccrimecontrol.org/safebus/rules.html
Trooper Helms is currently working on scale models that will demonstrate laws concerning passing a school bus in an effort to better educate the public.
For more information about school bus safety, go to: http://www.nccrimecontrol.org/safebus/#Bus