By Samuel Speciale
Charleston Daily Mail Staff
Despite flashing lights and stop signs warning drivers to keep a distance, about 500 motorists illegally pass school buses each day in West Virginia, a survey conducted by the state Department of Education has found.
While that number seems high to Jimmy Lacy, transportation safety director for Kanawha County, he said illegal passing happens every day.
“I don’t know if people are in a hurry or they’re distracted,” he said. “But it’s a problem.”
Kanawha County bus drivers participated in the survey this past spring. Lacy said the drivers reported about 20 violations daily.
When asked what he considered to be illegal passing, Lacy said it is any time a motorist passes a stopped school bus loading or unloading passengers.
The problem is exacerbated by negligent motorists who use cellphones while driving. Despite recent legislation prohibiting the use of hand-held devices while driving, Lacy said bus drivers frequently report seeing violations on their routes.
Because of this, motorists might not see the color-coded lighting system that lets people know when the driver is about to make a stop and when children are boarding or leaving the bus. Each bus also has a flashing stop sign on the left as a last reminder not to pass.
Because bus drivers can’t control other drivers on the road, a big part of ensuring students are safe involves monitoring traffic at each stop. Bus drivers also instruct students not to cross the road until they are signaled to do so.
Pat Mosley, transportation supervisor at the South Charleston bus garage, said illegal passing happens more frequently when school starts as motorists adjust to sharing the road with buses again.
Mosley, a former Kanawha County bus driver, said she can’t think of an instance when it is acceptable or safe to pass a school bus, even if there is an emergency.
“Life happens,” she said. “I understand that, but is the emergency you’re in worth having jail time because you passed a bus or you hit a parent or kid?
“I don’t think I could live with knowing I could have run over someone.”
Mosley said there’s an easy fix: drivers can simply take an alternative route to avoid getting stuck in school traffic.
She said buses travel the same routes at relatively the same time each day, so it’s up to drivers to make the adjustment.
For those who do pass a bus, they could receive a $500 fine and possible jail time.
Each bus in Kanawha County is outfitted with tiny cameras, and while most are used to monitor students, two take pictures of passing vehicles so license plate numbers can be identified.
Mosley said the pictures can be used as evidence in court, though she doesn’t think the magistrates take the violation as seriously as they should.
“They (violators) only get a slap on the wrist,” she said.
Capt. Sean Crosier of the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office said the problem is not taken lightly.
“I promise you violations like that are not brushed under the rug,” he said, later adding that anyone who passes a school bus will receive a citation at the very least.
“We practice zero tolerance,” Crosier said. “It’s a huge safety issue.”
Crosier also said more violations are reported when school starts, which has prompted the Sheriff’s Office to station deputies in school zones.
While most illegal passers will receive a citation, Crosier said some could be written up for reckless driving.
A law passed in 2010 by the Legislature imposes stricter penalties for illegal passing.
The law made first offenses a misdemeanor with a $150 to $500 fine and up to six months in jail. Drivers who illegally pass a bus and injure or kill a child are charged with a felony, are fined up to $3,000 and could be sentenced to spend as long as a decade in prison.