There will be additional reasons for drivers to be careful when schools re-open for students August 19th. A recently enacted law known as the Hasani N. Wesley Students’ School Bus Safety Act stiffens the penalties for drivers who illegally pass a stopped school bus.
The legislation is named for Hasani Wesley, an 11 year old boy who was killed in Kernersville, NC last December by a driver who passed a stopped school bus despite the flashing red lights and stop arms deployed by the bus. Hasani was one of four students killed in NC last year while crossing the street to or from a school bus. Three of the four were struck by motorists who were illegally passing a stopped school bus.
Under the new law, motorists convicted of passing a stopped school bus face a $500 minimum fine, a substantial increase from the previous $200 maximum. A driver who hits a child in the process will receive a fine of between $1,250 – 2,500. To make sure drivers don’t escape the increased penalties, the NC Division of Motor Vehicles will withhold the renewal of registration for drivers who don’t pay their fine. In addition, repeat offenders will have their licenses revoked for at least a year and could permanently lose their license.
Drivers hoping to catch a break when their case comes to trial will be disappointed. Violators cannot receive a Prayer for Judgment (PJC) for passing a stopped school bus under any circumstances. They will be found guilty of a Class I Misdemeanor if no one is hurt and convicted of a Class I Felony if their vehicle strikes a child.
Even when no one is hurt, the expense of passing a stopped school bus doesn’t stop with the fines. A conviction for passing a stopped school bus adds 5 points to a driver’s license for a personal vehicle and 9 points for a driver operating a commercial vehicle. These additional points can raise the driver’s price of auto insurance by 80% or more, which is likely to cost the offender thousands of dollars over the next several years.
The new bus safety law has the enthusiastic support of Watauga County Schools Transportation Director Jeff Lyons. “I’m for anything that helps get people focused on child safety,” said Lyons. “There are far too many people who think their time is so important that it’s worth putting a child at risk to save 30 seconds by passing a stopped school bus.” Lyons has the statistics to back up his statement.
Each year there is a designated date for a statewide School Bus Stop Arm Violation Count, a day when all NC school districts keep a record of how many drivers pass stopped school buses. Last year’s count on March 13 tallied 3,316 incidents in which drivers passed stopped school buses, including eight cases in Watauga County. A substantial majority of the violations – both statewide and in Watauga County – involved situations where the driver passed a bus that had stopped on the opposite side of the road.
“Drivers need to remember that stopping for a stopped school bus is not just a matter of “stop and go” as long as no children can be seen,” notes Lyons. “Vehicles approaching a school bus displaying its mechanical stop signal and flashing red lights must stop and remain stopped until the flashing red lights are off, the stop signal is not displayed, and the bus is in motion.”
Despite the threats posed by inattentive motorists, the overall safety record of school buses is impressive. The Fatality Analysis System of the U.S. Department of Transportation shows that a child is about 60 times more likely to be hurt in a personal vehicle than in a school bus. Lyons is pleased with that figure but he is also convinced safety can be improved with more cooperation from motorists.
“There is no excuse for any child to ever be hurt or killed by someone passing a stopped school bus,” said Lyons. “I hope the additional penalties will help people realize that passing a stopped school bus is a serious threat to our children and a serious crime to boot. Safety is always the number one priority for our bus drivers. It should also be the number one priority for every driver on the road.”