FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — More drivers illegally passed stopped school buses in Forsyth County during this year’s annual one-day count than during any year since the statewide effort to track the problem began in 1998.
Last Wednesday, bus drivers for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools counted 139 vehicles illegally passing their buses when the stop arms were down and red lights were flashing.
Over the course of a 180-day school year, that would mean Forsyth County would record more than 25,000 stop-arm violations and drivers would be putting thousands of children getting on and off the buses at risk.
The state began tracking stop-arm violations 17 years ago. Efforts to increase awareness of the problem were widely unsuccessful, said Derek Graham, section chief for transportation services under the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
“The numbers have been pretty consistent for quite a few years now,” Graham said of stop-arm violations across the state.
During the 2013 count, more than 3,300 drivers passed school buses statewide in a single day. Statewide totals for this most recent count have not been released.
Violations in Forsyth County jumped by more than 50 percent from last year’s count of 91 vehicles. It’s a sign that steps taken to increase awareness and strengthen the law have yet to take hold, officials say.
Two state representatives from Forsyth County — Democrat Ed Hanes and Republican Donny Lambeth — sponsored a bill that was passed last year to add more teeth to the existing school bus stop-arm law. That bill, named for a Forsyth County student who was killed while crossing the street to get on his school bus in December 2012, increased the penalties for drivers who illegally pass stopped buses.
The driver who has been charged in the death of Hasani Wesley, Billy Roger Bailey, will stand trial starting the week of April 14.
Hanes said more time is needed to educate people about the law and give the enforcement mechanism time to work. He said that once more drivers are prosecuted and handed stiffer penalties, he expects the law to become more impactful.
“I think (the increase in Forsyth County) just reflects the problem that we have,” Hanes said. “(We) were right on time putting this legislation in place. We’ll see what happens at the next (count).”
Lambeth was not immediately available for comment.
Under the Hasani N. Wesley Students School Bus Safety Act, illegally passing a school bus can lead to a misdemeanor charge and a minimum fine of $500. Drivers convicted twice within three years of illegally passing a school bus could have their licenses revoked for a year. Drivers convicted three times can lose their licenses permanently.
Drivers who strike a student can be charged with a Class I felony, pay a minimum fine of $1,250 and lose their licenses for two years.
Drivers who strike and kill a student can be charged with a Class H felony, pay a minimum fine of $2,500 and lose their licenses for three years.
Two felony convictions related to stop-arm violations could result in drivers losing their licenses permanently.
The law also encourages local school boards to use the fines collected from stop-arm law violators to purchase stop-arm camera systems. The system records vital pieces of information needed to effectively prosecute violators, such as video of a vehicle passing the bus and the vehicle’s license plate number.
The General Assembly also appropriated $600,000 this year and next for the purchase of stop-arm cameras. Each school district will be able to buy two camera systems for buses each year.
The hope is that the fines from violations caught by those cameras will eventually allow the majority of buses in the state to be outfitted with cameras. The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education wanted to get a jump on outfitting its 350 buses, so it budgeted $60,000 last year to outfit about 40 buses this school year.
Graham said that about 36 districts in the state have at least some buses outfitted with cameras. Once more districts get on board, the effort will have a greater impact, he said.
“When they’re out there on a widespread basis, we’ll be able to make a big splash encouraging folks to be extra vigilant because they might get caught,” he said.
“Motorists should not be extra careful around school buses because they might get caught. They should be extra careful around school buses because that’s where kids are. Nobody wants to live with the knowledge they’ve caused injury to a child.”