GUILFORD COUNTY, N.C. — In the past 14 years, 15 students have been killed by drivers while trying to get on their school bus in North Carolina. Troopers estimate that on any given day, 3,000 people illegally pass school buses.
“We know that violations are taking place because the school bus drivers are telling us, they’re documenting this,” said Master Trooper Chris Knox, of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol.
To protect the 800,000 North Carolina students who ride buses to school, a new mandate brought down by the state requires troopers to ride on a bus and behind them in their vehicles at least once a month.
“This is a huge issue for us and of course we want to make sure that all these students that are getting off and on buses every day are doing so safely,” said Knox. “We want to recognize where the problem areas are within each county.”
On Tuesday, at Southeast Guilford High School outside Greensboro, troopers were taking part in the new initiative; with a trooper on a bus and two following behind. The bus they targeted was determined by looking at complaints to figure out which routes were seeing the most violations.
“It’s personal for us,” said Knox. “This isn’t something we’re going out and looking for numbers, it’s not about that.”
Knox says the law is pretty cut-and-dry. With the exception of drivers on the opposite side of four-lane highways with a raised median or center turn lane in the middle, one must stop for a school bus with its stop arm out and red lights flashing. Yet, he said drivers are often distracted and don’t realize there is a school bus stopping until it’s too late.
“I don’t think people are going out and looking to hurt kids. People not knowing the law or those distractions are the issues that we are seeing,” said Knox. “By being distracted and driving, you’re not seeing that buses are coming to stops. You’re not paying attention to the lights.”
Also, Knox said that drivers often get caught in between continuing and stopping when the amber school bus lights are activated, which is approximately 300 feet before a stop.
“It’s an issue; do you really want to cut it that close? Just like when you come up on an intersection, do you want to try to beat the light, or do you want to err on the side of caution,” said Knox. “That time you try to beat it might be the time that the kid’s already in the roadway.”
Many school buses are now equipped with multiple cameras. These cameras allow troopers to capture images of drivers when they illegally pass a bus. These images are then used to issue citations to drivers after violating the law.
“We show them the picture of their vehicle, the picture of their tag, the picture of their face as they pass the stopped school bus and they really have nothing to say at that point,” said Knox.
For more information on the laws regarding passing school buses, and other useful resources, visit ncbussafety.org.