As the Senate Judiciary 2 Committee heard a bill Feb. 21 that targets motorists who illegally pass stopped school buses, an eighth-grade student was hit while attempting to board his bus in Castalia, N.C. Senate Bill 16, which cleared the committee, would revoke the driver's license of anyone convicted of breaking the school-bus stop law.
While it is already illegal to pass a stopped school bus with an extended stop arm and flashing amber lights, drivers cited with violations are not automatically suspended. In addition, the new bill calls for a year-long suspension if the driver hits a pedestrian and a two-year-long suspension if the victim dies as a result. If passed by the legislature and signed into law, the measure would take effect Dec. 1.
An earlier version would have required a six-month suspension for first-time offenders, but the committee reduced the penalty to 30 days for a first offense, but only if a pedestrian is not hit.
Committee members also discussed equipping school buses statewide with stop-arm cameras to catch violators in the act to aid in enforcement.
According to the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, 13-year-old Jesus Ortiz was crossing the road to get on his bus about 6:15 a.m. Thursday when he was struck by passing motorist Nicolas Benitez. Ortiz suffered lacerations on his face and a broken leg. Troopers said the school bus was stopped and had its crossing stick down when Ortiz was hit. The motorist was charged with driving with a revoked license, passing a stopped school bus and having unsafe tires.
According to the North Carolina Department of Instruction, school bus drivers reported seeing 3,196 vehicles illegally pass stopped school buses at 2,299 bus stops statewide during the one-day Operation Stop Arm count in 2012. The 2012 figure represents a dramatic increase since 2000, when half as many violations (1,511) were tallied.
In the past decade, the legislature has passed bills that increased penalties and closed loopholes on stop-arm violations, including the Nicholas Adkins School Bus Safety Act (HB 440) in memory of the 16-year-old student killed when a driver did not halt for a stopped school bus, which added a provision to an existing law to allow the use of automated camera and video recording systems to detect and prosecute violators.