RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Every school day in North Carolina, drivers pass stopped school buses, violating state laws requiring drivers to yield when a bus’s stop arm is extended.
“Over 3,000 cars per day in North Carolina pass a stopped school bus illegally while it’s stopped to pick up kids,” said Derek Graham, section chief of transportation services at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
Data provided by DPI indicates that 3,153 vehicles passed stopped school buses on March 26. There were 13,323 school buses on North Carolina roadways on that single day, and with more than 800,000 kids in the state relying on these buses, the danger is very real.
“The biggest safety problem for kids is not on the school bus itself — that’s the safest way to get to and from school — it’s getting on and off the bus,” Graham said.
Since 1999, 13 children have died simply trying to get to and from school. One of those children was 7-year-old Alyiah Morgan, of Harrells, who in April 2013 was hit by a truck along Highway 421.
Alyiah was getting off her school bus — its lights were flashing and the stop sign was out — when the Highway Patrol said a log truck went past stop sign and hit her. She died on the way to the hospital.
“She was tomboy when she wanted to be a tomboy, a princess when she wanted to be a princess,” her aunt Rosabell Martinez described.
She said memories of Alyiah’s contagious smile and her eyes that could light up a room are things that she keeps close to her heart.
“It’s terrible you have to lose somebody you love for something so senseless — that this person was in a rush or that person wasn’t paying attention,” Martinez said.
The driver in the case, Johnny Allen Spell, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and driving while impaired. He is currently in prison.
Cases like Alyiah’s are far too common, and with new technology the proof is undeniable. A pilot program funded by the state has equipped more than 400 buses with new camera systems.
Now, surveillance videos show what the state’s bus drivers have seen for years.
“The cameras are rolling at every bus stop,” Graham said.
Still, the program is limited in scope. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction reports that Wake County, for example, has 928 buses, but only two with stop-arm cameras. Durham County has 260 buses and three with the cameras, while Cumberland County has 444 buses and only two with cameras.
Those cameras catch images of the car, the driver and the license plate — a task that used to be left up to the bus driver.
Bus driver Cooper often has his bus passed while stopped
“I blow my horn or something like that to try and get their attention. but they already flew by,” said Thomas Cooper, who has been behind the wheel of a school bus for 4 years.
“A lot of times the places we have to stop, they have to cross the street,” he added. “I’ve got to constantly keep my eye out on the child and the traffic.”
Under North Carolina law, G.S. 20-217, drivers going either direction must stop when a school bus is stopped to let children off unless it is on a four or more lane highway divided by a median or a four or more lane road with a center turning lane. Drivers are not supposed to continue until the bus has completed dropping the children off and begun to move again.
The cue is the bus’s lights. The bus will first flash yellow lights indicting it is about to stop.
But Graham said many drivers have the view that yellow means to speed up to get through.
“Yellow means caution,” Graham said. “On a school bus, that’s where you have to be cautious because there are kids around.”
Children Often Aren’t Watching
Of course, children aren’t necessarily watching for cars, which is one reason North Carolina has strict laws to protect children.
WNCN Investigates took cameras out to see what happened when school buses stopped for students, and it only took minutes to find violators.
On Aug. 19, WNCN followed a school bus in Cary. At the first stop, a white convertible zoomed by as the bus opened its doors, completely ignoring the flashing stop arm on the bus.
That’s no surprise to those like Martinez, who has seen what can be horrible consequences.
“Even if it’s not your child, you should be thinking about someone else’s child,” Martinez said.
“We’d love to have the situation where the cameras are not even needed because people are doing what they are supposed to do,” Graham said. “Until that happens, we’re going to take the evidence off these cameras to make sure the motoring public either pays attention or pays up.”
For Martinez, it’s a call for stricter laws, and since 2001 lawmakers have been working on doing just that.
The latest changes came in 2012.
“It was increased to $500, it’s five points on your driver’s license, and it gets even worse if you were to strike or kill a child. We’re talking felonies,” Graham said.
Drivers who are convicted of passing school bus face a $500 fine, a hefty five points on their driver’s record and are not eligible for a prayer for judgment.
A driver who passes a stopped school bus and hits someone will face a Class I felony and a minimum of $1,000. The penalty rises to a Class H felony and fine of $2,500 if someone is killed.
Solving the Problem
So what are the solutions? Part of it is making sure children are paying attention as they cross.
“No earbuds, no texting while crossing the street — parents and students alike,” Graham said.
Although for little kids, it’s not always easy. WNCN’s cameras also saw children darting across the street without a single glance.
“A lot of times they’re sleepy, they want to eat — all type of situations like this,” said Cooper, the bus driver.
Martinez, the aunt of Alyiah Morgan, urges drivers to be careful
“Our kids can’t see around that school bus,” added Martinez. “Who is that other person who’s going to help our child get from one end to the other end?”
Bus drivers and parents must help guide students when it’s safe to cross.
“Put an extra person on the bus. Have a monitor,” she added.
It’s Alyiah’s story that pushes Martinez to call for change.
“I challenge every single person that has a driver’s license to watch for these babies, because you could prevent what we’re going through,” she explained. “Let’s make changes to save somebody else’s child.”
WNCN is encouraging everyone to spread the word. Tell your friends, your family members, and most importantly talk to your kids. Spread the word on social media using #Brake4Buses. You could save a life.