That “STOP” arm means – stop

Oct. 21, 2013 @ 06:05 PM

This one should be a no-brainer.

You are driving down the road or city street during morning rush hour or in the mid-afternoon. You see in front of you – in your lane, or the oncoming one – a bright yellow school bus, its large red “STOP” arm out, red lights flashing.

Young people – often 6 or even younger – are boarding or getting off that bus. They know they should look both ways. But you know they may well not, or may misjudge your speed or distance.

And you know the law is clear: Stop.

But every day, some motorists won’t.

They won’t even though virtually all of us know the risks of ignoring those flashing lights and admonishing arm.

“In a 1997 survey on speeding and other unsafe driving behaviors, 99 percent of the drivers interviewed felt that the most dangerous unsafe driving behavior was passing a school bus with its lights flashing and stop arm extended,” according to the website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Passing a stopped school bus was considered to be more dangerous than any other unsafe driving behavior, more dangerous even than racing another driver, driving through a stop sign or red light, crossing railroad tracks with red lights blinking, passing in a no-passing zone, and speeding,” the website’s report of the survey continues.

If we feel that way, one might wonder why on a typical day, so many motorists are zipping by stopped school buses. Each year, the state collects data from districts on a one-day count of violations observed by bus drivers. In Durham this year on March 13, the drivers of the system’s 259 buses reported 89 passing violations. 

That means on average one in roughly every three buses that day had an incident when a motorist passed – illegally and unsafely putting that bus’s passengers at risk.

We actually do better than some of our urban counterparts – in Mecklenburg that day, the system’s 959 buses reported 721 passing violations. In Wake, 449 violations were reported with 920 buses on the road.

Fortunately, the vast majority of those incidents injure no one. But since 1998, 13 students in North Carolina have been killed – nearly one tragic death a year in one of the most avoidable of accidents.

Monday, state officials kicked off “Operation Stop Arm” week to emphasize the law – and tougher penalties that go into effect Dec. 1. Now, the maximum fine in a misdemeanor case in which no one is hit is $200. When the new law kicks in, the minimum fine for passing a stopped school bus will be $500.

This week, State Highway Patrol troopers in marked and unmarked cars will be patrolling school zones and following buses, hoping to discourage violations and nab violators.

That increased enforcement is welcome. But in the end, tougher enforcement and penalties can do only so much good.

The real solution rests with drivers who come upon school buses collecting and discharging young passengers.  In a word, that “stop” sign means stop.