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Video footage shared during an Oct. 8 meeting of community leaders shows just how close Brunswick County came to mourning the death of one of its children this fall.
“We showed a video from one of the cameras we have on one of our buses,” Brunswick County Schools Superintendent Edward Pruden said. “Three cars passed a bus, and an elementary school student was nearly hit.
“That certainly got everybody’s attention.”
The meeting marked one of the steps the school system is taking to address the problem of motorists unlawfully passing stopped school buses on county roads. State law requires motorists to stop and remain stopped while the bus has its stop sign and flashing red lights engaged.
It was the bus drivers who approached school board members with their concerns, which prompted Pruden to take action.
“Our bus drivers reported that the problem with citizens passing stopped school buses was not improving,” he said.
The school system has enlisted the help of law enforcement and news media to not only call attention to the problem, but also to find solutions.
“Law enforcement can’t do it all,” Pruden said. “We want to work with law enforcement and the media to educate the community and help them understand how important it is to obey these safety laws.”
A one-day school bus stop arm violation count conducted March 13 illustrates how pervasive the problem is.
According to that count, 13,346 North Carolina school bus drivers reported 3,316 vehicles illegally passed their stopped buses. Violations most often occurred from the front of the bus on two-lane roads.
In Brunswick County, 32 motorists passed stopped school buses during the March 13 count.
“Student safety is the No. 1 concern of school bus drivers and school transportation staff every year,” state Superintendent June Atkinson said in an August news release. “Every North Carolina motorist should share this priority by stopping for the school bus’ flashing red lights and extended stop arm, and watching for students around bus stops.”
Drivers statewide also reported 103 instances March 13 when motorists passed the bus on the right side — where students are loading and unloading, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
Since 1999, 12 students have been killed boarding or exiting a school bus. Four of those deaths occurred last year, representing half the national total of such fatalities, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Association.
First Sgt. Jeremiah King of the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office said Sheriff John Ingram was contacted by Brunswick County Schools about the growing problem.
“This is a situation we’ve monitored in the past,” King said. “The project that we’re taking on is a two-fold project. First, we want to educate the public. After we educate the public, then we can look at it from an enforcement standpoint.”
King said authorities have determined many motorists passing stopped school buses are high-school aged drivers who are passing school buses while trying to get to school on time.
Every school in the Brunswick County system has a school resource officer, King said.
“We have those people in place,” he said. “Now we just need to give them the material so they can begin this educational campaign.”
King said the process seeks to gain voluntary compliance from the public after addressing this situation “with honey instead of vinegar.”
“If we go out there and begin with enforcement like we’re laying the hammer down, this initiative won’t be successful,” he said. “We have to educate people and let them know why this issue is so important before we can enforce anything.”
More than 1,300 misdemeanor charges for passing a stopped school bus were issued in North Carolina in 2012.
When a school bus is displaying its mechanical stop sign or flashing red lights and the bus is stopped for receiving or discharging passengers, the driver of any other vehicle that approaches the school bus from any direction on the same street, highway, or public vehicular area is required to bring the his or her vehicle to a full stop and should remain stopped, under state law. The driver of the other vehicle should not proceed to move, pass or attempt to pass the school bus until after the mechanical sign has been withdrawn, the flashing red stoplights have been turned off and the bus has started to move.
Early this year, Gov. Pat McCrory signed the Hasani N. Wesley Students’ School Bus Safety Act, named after an 11-year-old student who was killed at his bus stop in December 2012.
The legislation increased the minimum fine for the misdemeanor of passing a stopped school bus to $500. If the passing motorist is convicted of a second offense within three years of the first, he or she loses his or her driver’s license for one year. A second conviction can result in the revocation of one’s driver’s license for two years.
If a passing driver strikes a pedestrian, the violation becomes punishable by a minimum fine of $1,250 and a Class I felony. If the felony charge results in a death, the fine increases to a minimum of $2,500 and the loss of driving privileges for three years.
Passing a stopped bus is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which may not be disposed of by entry of a prayer for judgment continued. Legislators voted in 2005 to make violating the law a Class 1 misdemeanor instead of the less-serious Class 2 misdemeanor.
Court appearance is mandatory for such charges and cannot be resolved by mail. Five driver’s license points are assigned to such a conviction if the driver operated a noncommercial vehicle, eight with a commercial vehicle. Four insurance points apply, which translates to an 80-percent increase in insurance rates in many cases.
If the driver of the vehicle strikes someone while passing a school bus, regardless of whether the person is injured, he or she is charged with a felony under legislation passed in 2007.
If the person struck dies as a result of the collision, the driver is then charged with a Class H felony under a law passed in 2009.
That law also allowed for the use of automated cameras and video recording systems to detect and prosecute the driver at fault.
Sam Hickman is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or firstname.lastname@example.org.