N.C. Highway Patrol puts extra emphasis on education, safety

Oct. 25, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

It's the middle of Teen Driver Safety Week across the country, and in this area, N.C. Highway Patrol troopers are making a push both to educate teen drivers and to punish drivers of any age who might hurt teens or other schoolchildren.

In response to an increase in complaints about drivers illegally passing stopped school buses, 1st Sgt. Ronald Elkins of the local Highway Patrol district — which covers Lee and Chatham counties — said his troopers will be monitoring bus stops and individual buses to have a better chance at catching lawbreakers.

The Highway Patrol has also begun reaching out to teens to teach them safe driving tips — both in schools and on its own driving training course in Raleigh, with free classes next month — to instill good habits before bad habits turn dangerous, Elkins said.

Through a partnership with a nonprofit that educates teens and their parents on good driving practices, the Highway Patrol is allowing any teen driver to take a four-hour class on either Nov. 23 or 24 at its driving facility in Raleigh. People can register at www.putonthebrakes.com/driving-schools/schedule1 and can find more information at www.putonthebrakes.com/driving-schools/faqs.

"By far, teen drivers are ... running off the road to the right," Elkins said. "Whether that's speeding, or distracted driving, they're running off the road to the right, and then they're over-correcting. And that's when you have bad wrecks is when they over-correct too hard to the left and either go off the road or into oncoming traffic."

He said troopers go to driver's ed classes in Chatham County schools to give presentations, but due to the short time available, they can't always do as much as they'd like to do with the students. The free driving classes, he said, will allow everyone to get where they need to be.

"It's a pretty good program, so I think people would definitely, definitely get a lot out of it if they go," he said.

One thing that's not free is the fallout from passing a stopped school bus. In terms of points on a license, it's the absolute highest offense a North Carolina driver can commit, and starting Dec. 1, the state will charge drivers a minimum of $500 and could possibly revoke the offender's license.

Elkins said his office has had a higher number of complaints than usual from both bus drivers and concerned parents or regular citizens — mainly in Chatham County, where the district has increased bus safety with a grant from the state.

Reid Cagle, the Lee County Schools transportation director, said that so far, bus drivers have reported about about the same number of incidents as in years past. He also said there have been no accidents or other serious incidents — such as a near-miss — this year but that until both drivers and students become more careful, the possibility is always there. A high school student in Rowan County was run over and killed while walking to a bus just last week, Cagle noted.

"I haven't noticed a real big increase this year, but it does happen," Cagle said. "And all it takes is one. ... I think drivers really need to pay attention to what's going on — especially before and after school — and we ask parents and students to make sure they always look both ways."

Elkins also stressed that drivers pay attention to pedestrians and others on the side of the road. There has been an unusually high number of accidents involving pedestrians, bikers and others lately, he said — including the recent traffic death of a Lee County man on a lawnmower — which Elkins said often occurs in rural areas when one or both parties might have let their guards down.

This time of year is also when deer become more active, Elkins said.

"If you see that set of eyes off in the distance, you need to slow down ahead of time," he said. "You never know what a deer's going to do. In Chatham especially, we always see a huge increase in the number of deer collisions in November. Lee, too, but not as much as Chatham."