Harsher penalties for North Carolina drivers who illegally pass school buses go into effect Dec. 1, and officials say the death of a Rowan County teen this week illustrates why tougher laws were needed.
But no matter how strict the laws, one state official said, they wont protect students unless the drivers are alert to stopped school buses and when its illegal to pass them.
Makinzy Jordan Smith, 17, was killed Thursday after he was hit by a car while crossing a two-lane road northeast of Salisbury to board his bus. Authorities charged Barbara Smith, who was driving in the opposite direction, with felony passing a stopped school bus. She is not related to the victim.
Under current state law, passing a stopped bus is a misdemeanor. If convicted, drivers receive five points on their license and up to a $200 fine, according to the N.C. Highway Patrol. Passing a stopped bus is a Class I felony if the driver strikes an individual and a Class H felony if it results in death, officials said.
Under state law, when a school bus displays its mechanical stop signal or flashing red lights to receive or discharge passengers on a two-lane road or undivided highway, vehicles in both directions must stop and not attempt to pass the bus until the mechanical stop signal is withdrawn, the flashing red lights are turned off and the bus has started to move.
On a divided highway of four lanes or more, with a median separation or a center turning lane, only traffic following the bus must stop.
Under the Hasani N. Wesley Students School Bus Safety Act, which was passed in 2013 and goes into effect Dec. 1, drivers who pass a stopped bus will receive a minimum fine of $500 among other penalties.
In certain circumstances, offenders will lose their licenses if they hit someone under the new law, which is named for Hasani Wesley, 11, who was killed in Forsyth County in December 2012 by a driver illegally passing a school bus.
Smith was the 13th student killed since 1998 in North Carolina after motorists illegally passed or did not heed a buss stop arm, said Derek Graham, section chief of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction Transportation Services.
Our laws have gotten progressively stronger. But if it doesnt act as a deterrent, (penalties) kick in after the violation has taken place and thats too late for the children, Graham said.
Last year, four students were killed in school bus-related collisions, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation. Smiths death is the fifth within about a calendar year, Graham said.
Thats probably the highest in the country during this particular period of time, he said. We cant trust the motoring public to stop every single time, and thats what it takes.
Ryan Gray has been editor in chief of School Transportation News a monthly trade magazine with 25,000 readers nationwide for nearly a decade. He said an average of 15 students are killed annually in the U.S. after being hit either by a motorist or the bus itself.
The motto in the industry is One life is too many, he said. How many more of these have to happen before people get the picture and get a clue? Theres a big push in the industry to drive these fatalities down to zero.
Cameras mounted on the stop arms of school buses are one way states are working to prevent these types of fatalities, Gray said. Were seeing a lot of activity with that nationwide North Carolina is one of the states that has more stringent laws about passing at school bus stops.
In North Carolina, the Nicholas Adkins Safety Act named for the Rockingham teen killed by a driver who didnt stop for the buss stop arm was passed in 2009. The law allows video evidence from these types of camera systems to be used to prosecute stop arm violations.
Rowan County was one of the first districts to get the cameras in 2011, after school officials asked for them, Graham said. Theyve had the most success of any school district in North Carolina of getting convictions, he said. Theyve been vigilant and working very hard to try and crack down on that problem.
The irony is just immense.
Not every bus in Rowan has cameras, and its unclear whether the bus involved in Thursdays fatality was equipped.
Every school district in the state will have cameras available for some buses before the school year is over, after money was appropriated in this years state budget, Graham said.
Keeping track of violations
The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services posted the numbers from its 2013 Stop Arm Violation Survey, which 29 states participated in, including North Carolina. In the survey, school bus drivers voluntarily kept track of how many stop arm violations occurred on a single day.
Nationwide, there were more than 85,000 illegal passes and stop arm violations according to the survey. North Carolina had 13,361 bus drivers counting on March 13 and nearly 3,500 stop arm violations were counted statewide, Graham said.
There are significant numbers of passings in every state that participated. Unfortunately, it seems it only gets worse as there are more distractions for motorists on the road.
Gray attributes stop arm violation-related deaths to three factors: lack of education about school bus laws, confusion about how to respond to a stopped school bus and drivers who are in a rush.
The more these types of tragedy occur, you hope more people understand the law, live the law, Gray said. And that the awareness gets out to the general motoring public about what to do when they come across a school bus stop.
Operation Stop Arm
Next week, the N.C. Highway Patrol plans to watch for illegal bus passings and stop arm violations during Operation Stop Arm week, which was scheduled before Makinzy JordanSmiths death. Troopers in marked and unmarked vehicles will patrol school zones and follow buses through the week, which officials believe will help decrease violations.
Awareness is also key on the part of students, Graham said.
Prior to the start of this school year, State Superintendent June Atkinson sent letters to bus drivers, parents and school administrators urging families to discuss safety rules when getting on and off the bus, such as looking both ways before crossing traffic, Graham said regardless of how old they are.
Just because the bus is there and the lights are flashing, it doesnt mean cars will stop. Staff writer Steve Lyttle contributed.
Trenda: 704-358-5089; Twitter: @htrenda
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