Apparently, something that should be a common-sense matter of safety is still a dangerous problem - the illegal passing of a stopped school bus.
It always has been against the law to pass a stopped school bus when its lights are flashing while unloading children. The reason is obvious. But five years ago, a Lincoln County 6-year-old exiting her school bus to go home was killed when a driver did not stop as the child was crossing the road. The West Virginia Legislature strengthened laws in an attempt to protect children from careless drivers.
However, even though punishment is tougher and most buses are equipped with video cameras to record potential incidents, many drivers still do not stop for buses and children are still getting hit by vehicles that did not stop. While there have been no more fatalities, several children have been injured in the intervening years by this negligent behavior.
Last year, acting on complaints by bus drivers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the state Department of Education conducted a survey in 38 counties. According to Benjamin Shew II, executive director of transportation for the state Department of Education, the study showed 400 incidents of drivers illegally passing a stopped school buses on a daily basis in those counties. That would project to 600 daily incidents statewide.
"That's 100,000 times (a year) that our students were having a possible injury or death," Shew said in published reports.
The survey also found most illegal passings occur in the afternoon when children are going home. And most (80 percent) of the incidents are by oncoming vehicles.
As a result of this survey, the Department of Education is conducting an educational campaign to make this issue a priority not only with drivers, but with the state courts as well. The department is working the state Supreme Court to hold informational sessions with magistrates around the state to help make them aware of the seriousness of the issue.
This week, state troopers will be on school buses in every county - including Wood. If a violation is noticed, the trooper will radio another trooper following he bus The offender will be stopped, arrested and taken to the local magistrate office.
People found guilty of first-offense illegally passing a school bus face a $500 fine, jail time of up to six months and suspension of a driver's license for 30 days. If - God forbid - a child in injured or killed, the driver faces up to 10 years in prison and a $3,000 fine.
An informational campaign should not be needed to remind drivers it is illegal to pass a school bus unloading children. Anyone intentionally doing this deserves to be punished.