Mark Williams, a bus driver with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS), said he has to jot down the make, model and license plate of a car if it passes as the school bus is stopped and he has the stop arm extended.
“The bus is long, it’s yellow and it has flashing lights,” he said. “If you don’t see that, you probably shouldn’t be driving and you should get your eyes checked.”
Even then, the district can only send a form letter to the address where the car is registered. Drivers who are caught passing a stopped school bus can face a $500 fine and five points on their license. And these drivers can be difficult to catch.
“It’s my word against someone else’s,” Williams said. “That’s why there’s not many convictions.”
More than 3,000 people pass stopped school buses in North Carolina every day, according to a study by the Department of Public Instruction.
School districts and bus drivers across the state struggle to identify these drivers, who cannot be prosecuted unless someone can look at their face and get their name. Stop arm cameras are armed with facial recognition technology, which could make it easier for police officers to charge these drivers.
Tight on funds
State legislators are struggling to find money in the state budget to expand the stop arm camera program.
The legislature’s child fatality task force cited tight funds in December when it denied a plan to partner with companies and install a stop arm camera on every school bus.
Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, who is a member of the child fatality task force, said the estimate for each stop arm camera totals $3,000 to $3,200.
Currently, there is funding for two stop arm cameras per district, which is costing the state about $700,000. Lambeth said he will propose an extension of that funding by the end of the legislative session.
“We’re still looking for the right solution,” he said.
Terry Rivers, who has installed stop arm cameras on North Carolina buses, said the cameras would help force drivers to pay the state’s steep fees for passing a stopped school bus.
“One of these would pay for itself,” he said.
Roy Cooper, the state attorney general, advocated for full funding of stop arm cameras during December.
“It’s good this task force believes school bus cameras save lives, but the legislature will only provide money for a few of them,” Cooper said in a statement at the time. “We hope the legislature will pass a law allowing local schools to get cameras on all buses at no taxpayer expense. Fines for violators can pay for the cameras, and violators can also face strong criminal charges.”
No easy fix
Since 1999, 13 students in North Carolina have been killed near their bus stops by cars trying to get around stopped bus. Five of those fatalities happened in the last five years.
Derek Graham, chief of transportation services for the state, said all students – young kids who don’t understand traffic rules and teenagers talking with friends or listening to music – are at risk.
“This isn’t just first-grade and second-grade kids,” he said. “The fatalities that we’ve had since 1998 include middle and high school kids.”
Graham said the stop arm cameras aren’t completely effective. It can be difficult for the cameras to get a clear picture of drivers’ faces.
“We need training for students, for bus drivers, for parents so that everybody out there realizes not all these cars are going to stop,” he said.
Robin Small, a CHCCS bus driver, said she has seen countless drivers pass her bus during her 22 year tenure. Only one, who passed within the sight of a police officer, was charged. She said stop arm cameras would prevent stop arm violations if drivers know that there is a greater chance they face fines and license points.
“If it was my child, would I pass this bus?” Small said. “People are too busy to think that.”
By Claire Williams, News Bureau: UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication