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After a handful of tragic deaths caused by motorists passing stopped school buses, lawmakers move to strengthen the law.
By Holly West
Too often, for students in North Carolina, getting on and off the school bus can be deadly.
According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, there have been 12 fatalities resulting from illegal school bus passings since 1998. Four of those deaths occurred this school year – half the national total of such fatalities, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Association.
Lawmakers in the General Assembly are working on bi-partisan legislation that they hope will prevent this number from rising.
The North Carolina School Bus Safety Act would impose harsher penalties on drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses by charging minimum fines of between $500 and $5,000 for violating the law.
In cases where a person is hit, drivers would have their licenses revoked.
Right now, it is illegal for drivers to pass a school bus that has its stop arm extended and red lights flashing. Under current law, drivers receive misdemeanor or felony charges for violations.
Legislators say the consequences for passing stopped school buses are not strict enough.
“In North Carolina, particularly in the last year, we’ve had so many bus-crossing accidents killing students,” said Sen. Earline Parmon (D-Winston-Salem). “The penalty was just so minimal.”
During the Department of Public Instruction’s annual one-day count in 2012, bus drivers reported 3,196 vehicles illegally passing stopped school buses.
Derek Graham, section chief for the department’s transportation services, said only a small fraction of these drivers are charged with violations.
“It’s very hard to get that charge because we have to be able to identify the driver,” he said.
Trouble in Forsyth County
The School Bus Safety Act is sponsored by two Forsyth County legislators, Rep. Edward Hanes (D-Winston-Salem) and Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Winston-Salem).
Hanes said there have been several bus-passing incidents in his area that have resulted in dead or injured students. Two fatalities have occurred in Forsyth County in the last two school years.
The most recent incident was in December, when an 11-year-old Kernersville boy was struck by an SUV and killed while crossing the road to get to his school bus.
Hanes said the Forsyth County School Board brought to their attention the need to strengthen penalties for school bus passing violations.
“We took a look at the statue and we saw it just didn’t have teeth in it,” he said. “We wanted the citizens of the state of North Carolina to start paying attention and to understand that we could not tolerate this kind of negligence going forward.”
In 2012, Nebraska and Louisiana passed similar statutes, while New York and New Jersey are considering such legislation. Nine states, including Virginia, permit buses to have external cameras to monitor passing traffic.
The General Assembly has increased penalties for illegally passing a stopped school bus several times in recent years.
In 2005, legislators voted to make violating the law a Class 1 misdemeanor instead of the less-serious Class 2 misdemeanor.
In 2007, illegally passing a stopped school bus became a felony charge in cases where a person was hit, regardless of whether the person was injured or not.
A law passed in 2009 made a violation of the law resulting in death a Class H felony. That law also allowed for the use of automated cameras and video recording systems to detect and prosecute the driver at fault.
The School Bus Safety Act passed the House unanimously on May 14. It will next be heard by the Senate committee on transportation.