Chatham schools chosen for bus safety program

Aug. 11, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

Chatham County students are getting on and off school buses 4,144 times every school day — which means 4,144 possibilities for a student to be hit by oncoming traffic.

This coming school year, the district has been picked as just one of two school districts statewide to test out new school bus safety measures. Chatham County hasn't had a student die at a bus stop since 2002, but four North Carolina children were killed this past school year going to or from their buses.

David Hamm, chairman of the Chatham County Board of Education, said he used to drive buses sporadically when he was a principal and assistant principal in the district. Drivers were bad then, he said, and it's no better now.

"I think it's worse," Hamm said. "People are more impatient now."

Joel Caviness, director of the county's transportation department, said his drivers report hundreds of cars passing their buses each year — which is the single highest offense a North Carolina driver can commit, as far as points being added to a license are concerned.

"Anytime a stop arm is passed, they call it in," Caviness said, although he noted that usually the offending drivers are going too fast for the driver to take down the license plate number. "... We do have cameras that can catch the type and color of the vehicle, though."

All students and drivers will also be trained to give and recognize simple hand signals to signify when the coast is clear or when there could be a dangerous driver coming down the road.

"We're trying to pattern ours after some other states that have slightly better safety records," Caviness said.

In addition to cameras, the vast majority of the county's buses are getting extra technological upgrades. All but seven of the district's buses were able to be re-wired to give the drivers more control and customization, letting them operate the flashing red lights, extended stop arm and bus doors separately. Previously, all three had to be turned on at once, meaning the driver could only tell oncoming traffic to stop once the bus was at a full stop with its doors already open.

The drivers had been able to deploy yellow lights to warn traffic to slow down for an impending stop, but Hamm said that actually backfired.

"I don't care what the textbook or whatever says," Hamm said. "When a driver sees yellow, it means speed up."

Of the four children struck and killed at school bus stops in North Carolina last school year, three were killed when the drivers illegally passed a stopped bus — including a Harnett County boy, 12-year-old Adam Kempf of Coats. Chatham County's last fatality came in 2002, when a student was hit while trying to cross Highway 15-501.

Caviness said he wasn't around when Chatham County's 2002 fatality occurred. But safety has increased since then, both he and Hamm said, noting that the state has mandated that buses stop on both sides of major roads and highways to cut down on the number of students crossing the street.

It's still not perfect, though. Each year the state has drivers report the number of violations they count on a specific day; Chatham County's 91 bus drivers reported 30 incidents of cars passing a bus just that day. The 10,850 bus drivers statewide reported 8.853 vehicles passing a stopped bus that day. Hamm said drivers who illegally pass a stopped bus and are caught should have no way out of the ticket and potential loss of their license.

"You hear horror stories of these people getting a good enough lawyer, they can get out of it," he said. "... Saying this won't make me popular, but I think we really need to just let the police do their job. Take out the loopholes."