North Carolina authorities say the recent death of a Rowan County teen illustrates why tougher penalties are needed in North Carolina for drivers who illegally pass school buses.
A 17-year-old was killed last Thursday as he crossed a two-lane road northeast of Salisbury to board his bus. Authorities have charged the driver with felony passing a stopped school bus — a charge created by a 2005 law.
A law that was approved earlier this year and goes into effect Dec. 1 further strengthens penalties. It is named for Forsyth County student Hasani Wesley, who was killed in December 2012 at age 11 by a driver illegally passing a bus.
Changes include a minimum fine of $500 for drivers who pass a stopped bus, up from a $200 maximum, in misdemeanor cases that don’t involve someone being hit. In certain circumstances, drivers will lose their licenses.
But a North Carolina student transportation official tells The Charlotte Observer that stronger penalties work only if they deter drivers from passing buses in the first place. Otherwise, after-the-fact penalties come too late for children, said Derek Graham, section chief of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction Transportation Services.
Since 1998, 13 students in North Carolina have been killed by drivers illegally passing a stopped bus or ignoring its stop signal, he said.
“Our laws have gotten progressively stronger,” Graham said. “We can’t trust the motoring public to stop every single time, and that’s what it takes.”
Under state law, when a school bus displays its mechanical stop signal or flashing red lights, vehicles in both directions must stop and not attempt to pass the bus until the sign is withdrawn, the lights are off, and the bus has started to move. The rules differ for a divided highway of four lanes or more. In that case, only traffic following the bus must stop.
In 2009, legislators approved a law allowing school districts to install cameras on buses to catch and prosecute violators. Rowan County was among the first districts to get the cameras in 2011, and has had the most success among North Carolina districts of getting convictions, Graham said.
However, not every bus in Rowan County is equipped with a camera, and it’s unclear whether there was one on the bus involved in Thursday’s fatality.
“They’ve been vigilant and working very hard to try and crack down on that problem,” Graham said. “The irony is just immense.”
This week, the N.C. Highway Patrol plans to watch for drivers illegally disregarding bus stop signs during “Operation Stop Arm” week, which was scheduled before Thursday’s death. Troopers in marked and unmarked vehicles will patrol school zones and follow buses through the week. Officials hope that will decrease violations.
Graham said students also need to be aware.
Before the school year started, 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 reminding students — no matter what their age — to look both ways before crossing traffic.
“Just because the bus is there and the lights are flashing, it doesn’t mean cars will stop,” Graham said.