An accident this morning in Transylvania County is the latest in a troubling number of incidents involving motorists who illegally pass stopped school buses. In a tragic coincidence, it was two years ago today that Hasani Wesley, an 11 year-old child from Forsyth County, was struck and killed by an automobile while he was waiting at a bus stop on his way to school.
Thankfully, none of the children hit this morning in Brevard were killed, although two were airlifted to a nearby hospital and one sustained serious injures.
According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, there have been 13 fatalities statewide caused by illegal school-bus passing incidents since 1998 and there were more than 1,300 misdemeanor charges for passing a stopped school bus in 2012. There were 3 felony charges statewide, two for striking a person and one for causing death.1
Students who take the bus to school are most vulnerable when they are outside the bus in the “danger zone.” Derek Graham, Transportation Services Section Chief for DPI, said that “the most dangerous part of the school bus ride is when students are boarding and exiting the bus. Once students are on the bus, it is by far the safest way for them to travel to and from school.”2
North Carolina law requires motorists to stop while a school bus has an extended stop-arm and flashing red lights, and remain stopped until the bus retracts the arm and begins moving. However, not every driver obeys the law when encountering a stopped school bus. Motorists can be very blatant in disobeying the law. Quite often, they will pull up behind the bus and go around the stop arm. Or, as they approach the bus in the oncoming lane, they will disregard the flashing red lights and continue driving.
During a one-day count in 2012, North Carolina school bus drivers witnessed 3,196 vehicles illegally passing stopped school buses at 2,299 bus stops. These violations occurred while the buses were stopped, stop-arm extended with flashing red lights, and children were in the process of embarking or disembarking buses.3
“The problem is persisting,” said Mr. Graham. “Three-thousand times a day or more during the school year a motorist illegally passes a stopped school bus in North Carolina.”4
These tragedies have prompted the General Assembly to address the recurrent problem of drivers failing to stop when a school bus is picking up or dropping off students.
Last year, the General Assembly passed the The Hasani N. Wesley Students School Bus Safety Act — named after the child from Kernersville who was killed two years ago — which set a minimum fine of $500 (among other penalties) for drivers who pass a stopped bus and in certain circumstances, offenders will lose their licenses if they hit someone. The legislature also provided $1.38 million to expand a program that enables at least two school buses in nearly every school district to be equipped with stop-arm camera systems. To date, 482 school buses have been equipped with stop-arm cameras, with more to come as revenues from violations are collected.5
“My son should be here, but his life was cut short due to this preventable issue,” said Odina Wesley, Hasani’s mother. “Something needs to done differently for the safety of our children. Hopefully, if the safety laws are more punitive people will pay attention. “They need to take heed that these are our babies out here.”6
“There is no excuse for any child to ever be hurt or killed by someone passing a stopped school bus,” said Watauga County Schools Transportation Director Jeff Lyons. “I hope the additional penalties will help people realize that passing a stopped school bus is a serious threat to our children and a serious crime to boot. Safety is always the number one priority for our bus drivers. It should also be the number one priority for every driver on the road.”7
In 2011, the North Carolina Governor’s Highway Safety Program funded a pilot program that placed seven external video camera systems on school buses in five school districts as a way to crack down on motorists passing stopped school buses. As of September 2013, 77 violations had been recorded and prosecuted through the court system, and no defense attorneys had challenged the video evidence.8
Carteret County Schools Transportation Director Lloyd Willis says it’s often been hard to prove a school bus stop sign violation. “In the past it comes down to being the bus driver’s word versus the motorist’s word. There’s no proof of it actually happening,” said Willis. “They can say the stop-arm wasn’t fully deployed or there was somebody else driving their car.” Images taken by the cameras can be given to the State Highway Patrol and used as evidence.9
In an open letter to school bus drivers, State Superintendent June Atkinson said, “Four North Carolina public school students were killed last year when they were struck while crossing the street to get on or off their bus. Three of the motorists illegally passed the stopped school bus while the stop sign was out and the red lights we re flashing. We must work to put an end to this kind of tragedy.”10
The North Carolina Highway Patrol has a form for people who see a motorist pass a stopped school bus. The form can be turned in to any school administrator or to the transportation department for a school system. Administrators will ensure the form is forwarded to the proper authorities.
- UNC School of Government: North Carolina Criminal Law, “School Bus Safety“
- Wake County Public School System, “Motorists asked to keep bus riders safe”
- NCDPI School Bus Safety Web, “Pilot Testing of a School Bus Stop-arm Camera Systems“
- WTVD-TV Raleigh-Durham, “Parents, school officials urge drivers to stop for school buses”
- North Carolina Public Schools, “School Bus Safety Spotlighted as New School Year Begins“
- Winston-Salem Journal, “School bus safety law named for Forsyth County student“
- High Country Press, “Hasani N. Wesley Students School Bus Safety Act Stiffens Penalties for Motorists Passing Stopped School Buses“
- NC Public Schools, “School Bus Safety Spotlighted as New School Year Begins“
- Time Warner News: Coastal NC, “Some school buses go high tech to ensure students’ safety“
- Department of Public Instruction, “Letter, July 1, 2013“