Earlier this week, a school bus safety law named for a Forsyth County student passed the North Carolina Senate. Sixth-grader Hasani N. Wesley died in December as a result of being struck by a motorist who illegally passed his stopped school bus as he crossed the road to catch it.
Rep. Ed Hanes, a Democrat, co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican. The bipartisan legislation (HB 428), which was recently renamed the Hasani N. Wesley Students’ School Bus Safety Act, would impose harsher penalties on drivers who fail to halt for stopped school buses in the process of loading or unloading students.
Minimum fines would be increased to between $500 and $5,000, and offenders would lose their driver’s license if they hit someone. Currently it is illegal for any driver to pass a school bus that has an extended stop arm and flashing red lights, and offenders receive misdemeanor or felony charges for violations.
Though the new law was largely inspired by the most recent such tragedy, Rep. Hanes said several local bus-passing incidents in his area have injured children or caused their death. Shortly after the December accident, Billy Roger Bailey of Forsyth County was charged with passing a stopped school bus and striking and killing a child, which is a felony.
“When we saw that, both of us were just astonished,” Hanes said, also referring to the bill co-sponsor. “So the penalties are a little more severe. That’s going to help.”
According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, there have been 12 fatalities statewide caused by illegal school-bus passing incidents since 1998. Four such deaths occurred in the most recent school year.
Last year, school bus drivers reported 3,196 vehicles illegally passing stopped school buses during the department’s annual one-day count on March 21. Enforcing school bus stop laws is a challenge because both the vehicle and driver must be clearly identified to gain a conviction.
In a pilot program last year, the state installed a camera system known as Fortress Mobile on the exterior of buses at a cost of about $4,500 per bus. The cameras work to capture an image of the vehicle and driver as well as shots of the stop arm and flashing lights. Several counties have successfully used the system to prosecute violators, according to news reports.
The school bus safety act encourages districts to use the fines collected from stop-arm violations to purchase such camera systems with the aim of increasing both convictions and awareness.
Hanes added that once drivers become aware they can be caught and face stiff penalties, the cameras will hopefully act as a deterrent.
“Once folks start seeing this is being heavily enforced, behavior will change,” he said.