HUNTSVILLE — Passing a school bus that has is stopped for children to load or unload may soon land you in court with a hefty fine to pay.
Scott County Sheriff Ronnie Phillips is reminding local motorists of the law governing when buses can be passed, and says his deputies will beef up enforcement of the law — including placing officers on buses in an attempt to bust drivers who ignore the law.
The sheriff’s comments follow a rash of accidents last week related to school bus stops, killing five children. In the deadliest of the accidents and several others, drivers ignored school buses’ extended stop signs and flashing red lights, striking children as they crossed the road to board the bus.
“It’s something that can’t be tolerated,” Phillips said Friday. “People have got to stop for these school buses and if you don’t, it’ll be dealt with with a citation, according to the law.”
In rural Indiana, 9-year-old Alivia Stahl and her 6-year-old twin brothers, Mason and Xzavier Ingle, were killed when they were struck by a pickup truck as they attempted to cross the road on Tuesday, October 30. Stahl died as she held her brothers’ hands and attempted to shield them from the oncoming vehicle. Another student was also struck and was airlifted to a Fort Wayne hospital.
The following day, a 9-year-old boy was struck and killed as he crossed the road to board a school bus near Tupelo, Miss.
On Thursday, a 7-year-old boy in Franklin Township, Penn. was discovered dead near his home by his bus driver. Police determined the child had been waiting for the bus to arrive when he was run over by a slow-moving vehicle.
There were other, non-lethal accidents last week as well. In Tallahassee, Fla., a kindergartner was injured after being struck by a vehicle as he crossed the road to board a bus. In Tampa, Fla., five children and two adults were hospitalized after a car struck pedestrians at a school bus stop. One of the children was in critical condition was expected to survive.
“I don’t know if it’s distracted drivers or what,” Phillips said. “But we’ve seen it in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Florida and Mississippi, and it has to stop.”
The rule regarding school buses who are making stops is simple: motorists in all lanes of traffic, going either direction, must stop unless the highway is divided, either by a concrete barrier or a grassy median. Scott County has no such highways, meaning all drivers locally must stop for buses that are loading or unloading children, even on U.S. Hwy. 27 and S.R. 63.
“Anywhere on 63 or 27 where it’s a four-lane, you have to stop both directions,” Phillips said.
As an example, even if a bus is in the outside northbound lane of U.S. 27 in Helenwood and a motorist is in the outside southbound lane on the opposite side of the highway, and the bus’s passengers are obviously loading from the northbound side of the highway, the southbound driver must stop.
Failing to stop for a school bus that is loading or unloading passengers is a Class A misdemeanor — just one step below a felony — carrying a fine of $250 to $1,000.
Drivers who ignore stopped buses and injure children face harsher charges, however. The 24-year-old Indiana driver is facing three counts of reckless homicide. The 22-year-old Mississippi driver has been charged with aggravated assault.
While causes of last week’s accidents were not revealed, it has been speculated that distracted driving is the cause. In each of the accidents, the offending motorist was under the age of 30. Studies have shown that younger drivers — Generation X and millennial drivers — are more likely to use a cell phone while driving. More than four out of five drivers in that age group reported using a phone while driving, according to a study released in August.
Phillips said it’s time to crack down on distracted motorists and others who ignore stopped school buses.
“I am going to instruct my officers to be sitting on 27 and 63 to watch for drivers who aren’t obeying the law,” Phillips said.
The sheriff added that he’s going to begin occasionally placing officers on some school buses to watch for motorists who are disobeying the law. An officer aboard a bus who observed a vehicle passing the bus in violation of the law could radio to a nearby patrol unit, which could stop the vehicle and issue a citation.
“It people don’t stop, we will stop the vehicle and issue citations,” Phillips said.
The sheriff’s department already places officers in school zones each morning and afternoon. In addition to decreased speed limits, a relatively new law in Tennessee requires that motorists not be on their cell phones in a school zone. Citations have been issued locally to drivers in violation of that law.