School Bus Safety

School started back this week across the state, which means that many school buses are traveling the roadways. Buses in my neighborhood hit the pavement early—one drove by this morning shortly after 6 a.m.—and often still are completing their routes when commuters begin to drive home from work. The advent of a new school year is a good time to review the laws that prohibit motorists from passing stopped school buses and to discuss amendments to those provisions enacted by the General Assembly last session.

What is a school bus? School buses are easy to spot. They typically are painted yellow. G.S. 20-4.01(27)d4. The words “School Bus” are printed in large type on their front and rear. Id.; G.S. 20-217(b). They are equipped with alternately flashing red lights on the front and rear and a mechanical stop signal. They can be public, private or parochial vehicles.

When must drivers stop? The driver of a vehicle that approaches a school bus from any direction on the same street, highway, or public vehicular area must stop and remain stopped when (1) the bus is displaying its mechanical stop signal or flashing red lights and (2) is stopped for the purpose of allowing passengers to board or leave the bus. G.S. 20-217(a). The driver of the other vehicle may not move, pass, or attempt to pass the school bus until after (1) the mechanical stop signal has been withdrawn, (2) the flashing red stoplights have been turned off, and (3) the bus has started to move. Id.

What about divided roadways? An exception to the rule stated above applies to drivers traveling in the opposite direction from a school bus on a street that has been divided into two roadways that are separated by an intervening space (including a center lane for left turns if the roadway consists of at least four or more lanes) or by a physical barrier. Such a driver does not have to stop upon meeting and passing a school bus that has stopped in the roadway across the dividing space or physical barrier.

For their part, school bus drivers generally may not stop to allow passengers to board or leave the bus upon such a divided roadway if the passengers would be required to cross the roadway to reach their destination or to board the bus. G.S. 20-217(d). Passengers may, however, board or leave the bus at points on a divided roadway that they must cross if pedestrian and vehicle traffic is controlled by adequate stop and go traffic signals.

What’s the penalty? Passing a stopped school bus in violation of G.S. 20-217(a) is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which may not be disposed of by entry of a prayer for judgment continued. G.S. 20-217(e). Court appearance is mandatory for such charges; they are not the sort that may be paid and resolved by mail. Five driver’s license points are assigned to such a conviction if the driver was operating a noncommercial motor vehicle, eight if the person was driving a commercial motor vehicle. G.S. 20-16. Four insurance points apply, translating to an 80 percent increase in insurance rates.

If a driver willfully violates G.S. 20-217(a) and strikes any person, he is guilty of a Class I felony. If a driver willfully violates G.S. 20-217(a) and strikes any person, resulting in the death of that person, she is guilty of a Class H felony.

How are violators caught? Sometimes witnesses record the license plate of a motor vehicle and describe its driver. See, e.g., State v. Williams, 90 N.C. App. 120 (1988) (witness described car and driver and provided license plate number). Sometimes violations are recorded by cameras mounted on the school bus’s stop arm. G.S. 20-217(h) provides that “any photograph or video recording by a camera or video recording system shall, if consistent with the North Carolina Rules of Evidence, be admissible as evidence in any proceeding alleging a violation of [G.S.20-217(a)].” And, in the worst cases, when a child boarding a school bus is struck by a driver, the driver may stop. See, e.g., State v. Weston, 273 N.C. 275, 282, 159 S.E.2d 883, 887 (1968).

New legislation. S.L. 2013-293 (H 428) amended the penalty provisions of G.S. 20-217 and enacted new license revocation and registration hold provisions, effective for offenses committed on or after December 1, 2013.

  • Mandatory Fines. The amendments require that a person convicted of a Class 1 misdemeanor for passing a stopped school bus pay a minimum fine of $500, a person convicted of a Class I felony pursuant to G.S. 20-217(g) pay a minimum fine of $1,250, and a person convicted of a Class H felony under this statute pay a minimum fine of $2,500. The act “encourages local boards of education to use the proceeds of any fines collected for violations of G.S. 20-217 to purchase automated camera and video recording systems to install on school buses to help detect and prosecutor violators.”
  • License Revocation. New G.S. 20-217(g1) requires that DMV revoke for one year the driver’s license of a person convicted of a second misdemeanor violation under G.S. 20-217 within a three-year period. DMV must revoke for two years the driver’s license of a person convicted of a Class I felony under G.S. 20-217 and must revoke for three years the driver’s license of a person convicted of a Class H felony under G.S. 20-217. DMV must permanently revoke the driver’s license of any person convicted of a second felony under G.S. 20-217 and the driver’s license of any person convicted of a third misdemeanor for passing a stopped school bus. DMV may restore a license permanently revoked under G.S. 20-217 after two years (in the case of revocation for a third misdemeanor) or three years (in the case of revocation for a second felony).
  • Commercial License Disqualification. New G.S. 20-17.4(o) provides that any person whose driver’s license is revoked under G.S. 20-217 is disqualified from driving a commercial motor vehicle for the period of the revocation.
  • Limited Driving Privilege. A person whose license is revoked for a first felony conviction under G.S. 20-217 may apply to the sentencing court for a limited driving privilege after six months of revocation.
  • Registration Hold. New G.S. 20-217(g2) and G.S. 20-54(11) prevent a person who fails to pay a fine or costs imposed pursuant to G.S. 20-217 from registering or renewing the registration for any motor vehicle he owns.

Public Safety.  There were more than 1,300 misdemeanor charges for passing a stopped school bus in 2012. There were 3 felony charges statewide, two for striking a person and one for causing death. One doesn’t have to look far for a compelling reason to comply with G.S. 20-217. North Carolina’s school children are worth the wait.

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