Saunders: Highway Patrol coming after those who pass stopped school buses

bsaunders@newsobserver.comOctober 20, 2013 

If Jeff Gordon saw you pass a stopped school bus back when he was a student and school bus driver in Harnett County, there was not a whole lot he could do. Oh, he could possibly try to get your license tag number as you zoomed by and pass it on to the cops or the Highway Patrol, but you might still get away.

Gordon can do a lot more than that now, though. And he promises he will. And you won’t get away.

He is 1st Sgt. Jeff Gordon of the N.C Highway Patrol, and when it comes to traffic violations, he said he considers none worse than automobiles passing stopped school buses.

‘Probably the worst’

“In my opinion, it’s probably the worst, because you have school kids who are trying to unload,” Gordon told me, “and a lot of times, whether they’re 5 all the way up to teenagers in high school, you find that they’re not always very cognizant of their surroundings.

“They’re assuming that traffic is going to stop when the school bus says ‘stop,’ but unfortunately, we have situations where people don’t stop,” he said.

Pure grief was audible in Gordon’s voice when he spoke of 17-year-old Makinzy Smith, a Rowan County student, who was struck and killed Oct. 17 when Barbara Harrison Smith of Salisbury apparently ignored the flashing lights on the stopped bus and the extended arm that means stop.

A news release from the Highway Patrol said neither alcohol nor drugs was a factor. It added, though: “There is indication of driver inattention.”

Is it worth it?

Really, now. Is getting home in time to see “The Young & The Restless” or texting your husband while you drive to warn him not to eat that last chimichanga worth endangering children?

Even if to you it is worth that, is it worth the five points on your driver’s license and the minimal charge – assuming you don’t hurt anyone – of a Class 1 misdemeanor? Hurt somebody while passing a bus, and you’re going to be in a world of hurt, too.

“If you strike a child and it results in a death, then that is a Class H Felony and it’s anywhere from five months to 20 months active jail sentence,” Gordon said.

This week is National School Bus Safety Week, and the Highway Patrol is unfolding its annual Operation Stop Arm to ensure that you obey the bus signals. Not everyone does, believe it or not.

During a one-day count in 2012, Gordon said, 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 in the process of embarking or disembarking.

“It’s really amazing that we don’t have more incidents” of fatalities, he said.

If stopping because it’s the law and the right thing to do isn’t reason enough for you, think about this: Gordon said troopers are going to be extra vigilant this week. Many of the buses have cameras inside and outside, and some troopers will follow buses in marked and unmarked cars. Some will even be on the buses with radios to call ahead if you pass illegally.

“That old cliche ‘a picture is worth a thousand words?’” he said. “This will allow us to build a stronger case.”

And it’ll give your family a chance to take a picture of you in the joint.

It’s definitely a tad early for Christmas jingles, but here’s one North Carolina motorists might want to remember the next time they see a stopped school bus. Maestro, hit it:

You’d better slow down

You’d better not pass.

Cos if you do a trooper

will be on your butt. or 919-836-2811

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