ROCKINGHAM — First a gray Toyota sedan. Then a black Chevrolet SUV, followed by a white Eagle Talon sedan.
Each of these vehicles passed Bus 203 as it was stopped, emergency lights flashing, stop sign and arm extended to the side and front, to allow children to disembark to Little Kingdom Child Care. Each of these drivers broke the law, and two others before them — a white Ford sedan and a green Chevrolet pick-up truck — stretched it as far as possible as they, too, passed the stopped bus that had emergency lights flashing but the stop sign not yet extended.
Local police and officials with the daycare facility, located on Long Drive across from FirstHealth Richmond Memorial Hospital, told The Daily Journal this past week that vehicles passing stopped school buses at that location are a growing danger. On Friday afternoon, as the second and third of seven buses stopped there to drop off children, it was clear their concerns were valid.
“Every time we have a bus stop, we have cars flying by,” said Jennifer Cline, a teacher and cook at the child care center. “They don’t even acknowledge it. How you don’t see a big old school bus …”
It’s a wonder shared by Rhonda Moses, the center’s director. Each morning and afternoon, as seven buses stop to pick up or drop off children and take them to and from school, Little Kingdom Child Care staff carefully and cautiously herd the children to and from the facility’s front door, across the parking lot to the school bus and back.
Each time, she knows there’s a significant risk. After all, children don’t often walk in a straight line — or unexpectedly choose to run. It creates a safety issue and, to a degree, adults at the child care center expect adults in the position of motorists passing by to be vigilant and follow the law. All too often, though, that’s not what happens.
Because of the safety issues, bus drivers no longer allow children to cross Long Drive. Instead, they each pull up to Little Kingdom Child Care and offer curbside service. Still, officials are trying to prevent the worst by planning for the unexpected.
“They pay no attention to that ‘stop’ arm,” said Moses. “They just drive on. “They don’t care, they don’t look back, they just keep going. That’s with every bus we have.”
Moses rattles off the list of possibilities about what makes motorists seemingly so uncaring.
“I’m just assuming people are rushing,” Moses said. “They’re trying to get to places, not paying attention. In the mornings, maybe they’re late for work … My thinking is, if it was your child, you would be concerned.”
The law is pretty clear on the issue, and it’s a law that hasn’t changed in years. North Carolina General Statute 20-216 covers it thoroughly:
“When a school bus is displaying its mechanical stop signal or flashing red lights and the bus is stopped for the purpose of receiving or discharging passengers, the driver of any other vehicle that approaches the school bus from any direction on the same street, highway or public vehicular area shall bring that other vehicle to a full stop and shall remain stopped.”
On a two-way road such as Long Drive, traffic in both directions must come to a complete stop. The presence of a turn lane makes no difference unless the roadway has four or more lanes.
It’s a problem that has generated a high level of concern and no small amount of attention from Rockingham Police Chief Billy Kelly. This law leaves little room for interpretation, and the corresponding $500 fine — not including court costs — for each infraction reflects just that.
“One of the highest points you can get on your license is passing a stopped school bus,” Kelly said. “We’d much rather, obviously, people pay attention and recognize the bus has stopped, and stop, rather than write a ticket. The children’s safety is more important than anything.”
Kelly has scheduled regular monitoring of the area. One recent session resulted in four motorists cited for failing to stop for a stopped school bus. That hardly is a permanent solution, however, because officers can be called away from such duty at a moment’s notice. Friday afternoon is a perfect example. Officer Chris Monroe showed up in an unmarked police cruiser to monitor the scene. Minutes before the second bus arrived, however, he was compelled to respond to a motor vehicle accident a short distance away.
Moses said safety has been an issue since school began, but Kelly noted in the last two months the number of complaints has started to increase.
“I don’t think it’s (that) they’re not familiar with the law,” he said. “It’s a basic thing that’s taught in driver’s ed.”
Moses said she’s welcome more signage but didn’t seem optimistic that would do the trick.
“If that would work, I’m all for it,” she said.