North Carolina keeps getting tougher in its legal stance against drivers who zoom past school buses that are stopped to pick up children in the morning or to drop them off in the afternoon and the statistics on kids hurt and killed keep getting a bit worse.
The state House Transportation Committee is considering the latest proposal to pile on more penalties for drivers who fail to stop for school buses that have their red lights flashing and stop-arms extended. As is often the case, this years stop-arm bill is inspired by one of this years young casualties.
This is something weve had to deal with in a very up-close and personal way in Forsyth County, said one of the bills co-sponsors, Rep. Edward Hanes Jr. of Winston-Salem. A young man was killed earlier this year, and weve had several incidents of kids being hit.
Hanes, a Democrat, teamed up with Rep. Donny Lambeth of Winston-Salem, a Republican and former school board chairman, to sponsor a bill that would add mandatory fines for all violators and revoke their drivers licenses whenever a student is injured.
Hanes and Lambeth were moved by the death of 11-year-old Hasani Wesley of Kernersville last December. A Forsyth minister was charged with passing a stopped school bus, resulting in death, a felony that carries a prison term of four to 25 months.
They might just as easily have been inspired by the death in October of Adam Kempf, 12, struck by a tile-and-carpet installer on his way to work in Harnett County. Or the death last week of Alyiah Morgan, 7, in Sampson County. State troopers said she was struck by an intoxicated lumber-truck driver who did not stop for her school bus and kept going after Alyiah was killed.
The current school year is one of the worst in memory for children killed by drivers who didnt stop for school buses. Four have died so far, out of a total 12 deaths recorded since 1998.
Thats a small number overall, but its still a dozen kids, said Derek Graham, transportation services chief for the state Department of Public Instruction. Its just hard to wrap my mind around that happening even as few as 12 times. And to have four this school year, I have no words for that.
The low number of deaths really does mask the extent of the problem.
Police across North Carolina charged 1,316 drivers with stop-arm violations in 2012, up from 1,140 in 2007.
And those were just the ones they caught.
One day each year, DPI has every school bus driver across the state more than 13,000 bus routes in 116 school districts report how many cars passed them while they had their red lights flashing and their red stop-sign arms extended.
The count in 2012 was 3,196. Thats not for the entire school year, but just for a single day in March.
Every one of these drivers might easily have injured a child.
Most of it is just people not paying as much attention as they need to, Graham said. The more distractions we have, the risk goes higher.
Sometimes bus stop accidents are not stop-arm violations because they happen just before the bus comes to a stop. Maria Jimenez, 14, of Garner died in March as she ran to catch a bus that had slowed near her house. The yellow lights were flashing, a legal warning that the bus was about to stop, but there were no red lights yet. The driver whose car struck Maria was not charged.
The House bill would revoke licenses automatically if a child is injured or killed, or in the rare case of a driver caught for repeat violations. It would add fines of $500 where no one was injured and $2,500 or $5,000 in cases of injury or death.
In February, the Senate approved a simpler measure that would revoke licenses for all stop-arm violators but would not add fines.
In the 1980s, North Carolina issued civil fines where witnesses got the license numbers of stop-arm violators, even if the driver could not be identified. Current law provides only for criminal punishment, and only if police can prove who was driving.
Perhaps the threat of a revoked license will encourage more drivers to be careful around school buses, Graham said.
The goal is to change behavior so people are not passing a stopped school bus to begin with, Graham said. These buses are huge in size, bright in color, with flashing lights and strobing lights all designed to get motorists attention. And yet, people are not paying attention enough.
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