Editorial: Reducing bus risks

  • Posted: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 12:33 a.m.

In an attempt to reduce the number of children injured or killed while boarding or exiting school buses, North Carolina lawmakers have stiffened penalties for motorists who violate bus safety laws. The most recent changes, which take effect Dec. 1, impose a minimum fine of $500 for drivers who pass a stopped bus. If the driver strikes a student, he or she could permanently lose driving privileges, in addition to facing felony charges.

If protecting young lives isn’t motivation enough to be on the watch for yellow buses, you might want to write those penalties on a sticky pad and keep it posted on your dashboard.

Tougher penalties can help deter willful violators and perhaps make even conscientious drivers more vigilant during bus operating hours. But while the state is making its laws harsher, it’s rolling backwards in another area of bus safety that has a bearing on the kind of accident that took the life of West Rowan High student Makinzy Smith last week and has claimed at least four other students’ lives statewide in the past year. In an era of endless belt-tightening, we’re allocating less state money for school bus replacements, while relaxing the age and mileage limits that buses can remain in service. This year, for example, the state budget reduces bus replacement funding by $29.8 million. Next year, the reduction will be $39.1 million.

As a consequence, school systems will keep older buses in service longer, buses that may lack the latest safety features like LED lighting, roof-mounted strobes or monitoring cameras on stop arms. There’s also the trickle-down impact. If local school systems lose state transportation funding, it reduces the resources necessary to take other measures, such as mandating that all students, not just the younger ones, be picked up on the “home” side of the street. In an impassioned plea, Makinzy’s grief-stricken grandfather says that’s one change he would like to see implemented across the state and nation. Noting the cost that might be involved, he states what many others feel: Whatever the expense, it’s worth paying to prevent these horrors from continuing to happen.

In the wake of previous deaths involving stopped school buses — 13 since 1998 — lawmakers have gradually increased penalties. Offenders deserve severe punishment, but you can’t legislate driver awareness. So long as kids are crossing the road to catch the bus, they’ll be vulnerable to inattentive motorists. The question is whether we’re willing to pay the costs in dollars as well as inconvenience so that we’re not simply making punishments more severe after the fact but actually reducing risks.

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