A closer look at school bus laws after fatality

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 19, 2013

The death of a high school student who was struck while boarding a school bus has left many with questions about what laws protect students and what the law says about students crossing the street for a bus.
West Rowan High School junior Makinzy Jordan Smith, 17, was killed Thursday morning while crossing the street to board the school bus. The teenager was struck by a Honda driven by Barbara Harrison Smith on Woodleaf Road. Smith, 57, was charged with felony passing a stopped school bus causing death.
Witnesses said the bus driver had made a complete stop, the red lights were on and the stop arm was extended. Those same witnesses said it appeared Barbara Smith did not stop. The North Carolina Highway Patrol continues to investigate the accident, but details on the specific circumstances that led to the accident haven’t been released.
Generally, when the bus driver approaches a stop, he or she turns on the yellow lights to give drivers notice they are about to make a stop, explained Salisbury Police Master Patrol Officer M. Benjamin.
Benjamin said the bus driver can wait for traffic to clear before opening the doors, which prompts the red lights and the mechanical stop arm, simultaneously.
N.C. law requires motorists in both directions stop if a roadway has two lanes, two lanes with a center turning lane and four lanes without a median separation.
Only motorists following the bus must stop if the bus is on a highway divided into four or more lanes with a median separation and a road with four or more lanes with a center turning lane.
Penalties for drivers who violate the school bus stop law range from probation and fines up to jail time if convicted.
Benjamin said several factors are considered regarding penalties, including the person’s driving record and criminal history.
In July, Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 428 into law. Known as the “Hasani N. Wesley Students’ School Bus Safety Act,” it enhances penalties for motorists who pass a stopped school bus.
The act was named after an 11-year-old Forsyth County boy who was struck and killed while boarding a school bus.
The law increases the minimum fine of passing a stopped school bus to $500. If the driver is convicted of a second offense within three years of the first conviction, the driver loses his or her license for a year.
If the driver hits a pedestrian, then the violation becomes a felony. If convicted, the driver faces a minimum fine of $1,250. With a second conviction, the driver could lose his or her license for two years.
If the driver hits a pedestrian and the accident results in death, then the violation becomes a felony and the person, if convicted, could face a minimum fine of $2,500 and loss of license for three years.
Benjamin advises students to look both ways when crossing the street, even if motorists are supposed to stop.
“There’s more distractions in cars than there used to be — phones, GPS, MP3s,” he said.
The bus driver is there to ensure the safety of passengers, and sometimes schools have bus monitors who also provide an extra set of eyes, he said. “You’ve really got to look. You can’t guarantee that car is going to stop,” Benjamin said.
He encourages fellow motorists who may see someone violating the school bus stop laws to speak up.
“If somebody witnesses a violation, get involved. The school bus drivers have a protocol, but being a witness is going to help. It may prevent something like this from happening,” he said of Thursday’s incident.
First Sgt. Frank Ferguson with the N.C. Highway Patrol also cautions students boarding the school bus.
“They need to look before they cross and not rely on the stop arm. Parents also need to encourage children, especially the little ones, to be cautious,” he said.
Ferguson also urges other motorists to get descriptions, a tag number and other helpful information if they see a driving passing a stopped school bus.
Makinzy Smith was crossing the street to catch the bus, which was stopped in the eastbound lane on Woodleaf Road. Barbara Smith’s Honda was traveling west.
School spokeswoman Rita Foil said buses in certain rural areas stop in front of a student’s home.
“Our district does make as many door side stops as possible, but there are limitations due to the number of buses allocated by the state,” she said.
She said the district must look at efficiency based on state guidelines. Many buses are shared among schools and scheduled to adhere to bell times.
After bus drivers begin their routes in August, they provide input if they feel a stop is unsafe, Foil said.
The school staff investigates and makes changes if needed.
Each parent also has an opportunity to dispute a bus stop. “When this happens, staff investigates and if it is an unsafe stop, a change is made immediately,” she said.
Foil said each day more than 190 school buses make more than 14,000 stops to deliver over half of the district’s students to and from school. There are 20,000 students in the Rowan-Salisbury School System.
“It is our continued hope that as a community we will heighten our awareness in realizing that it is everyone’s responsibility to look out for our children. If a school bus is in sight, you can be assured that children are close by,” she said.
A visitation for Makinzy Smith will be held today from 4-6 p.m. at Summersett Funeral Home and a funeral will follow in the Summersett Memorial Chapel.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253. Twitter: www.twitter.com/salpostpotts Facebook: www.facebook.com/Shavonne.SalisburyPost.