PARKERSBURG - With so many things going on over the course of a day, motorists can forget one of the most important rules of the road - stopping for school buses picking up and letting off children.
About 600 motorists illegally pass stopped school buses every school day in West Virginia, putting the lives of schoolchildren at risk about 120,000 times each year, according to the West Virgina Department of Education. These statistics prompted the department to reach out to other state agencies, businesses and the news media to address the problem.
This week, state police troopers statewide will ride school buses to catch law breakers and raise public awareness. Troopers were on several Wood County buses Tuesday morning with another trooper following in a patrol car ready to pull over anyone who did not adhere to the signals buses use.
Photo by Brett Dunlap
Wood County Schools bus driver R.C. Seebaugh makes a stop Tuesday morning to pick up students on their way to school.
''We do have a good bit countywide,'' bus driver R.C. Seebaugh said of people who do not stop. ''We have 96 buses out. On any given day, it is happening somewhere in the county.''
Seebaugh believes many infractions are because drivers aren't paying attention to the bus safety lights. They may be talking on a cellphone or have their minds on something else.
Many bus drivers will turn on their stopping lights before they come to a complete stop to give traffic around them plenty of time to see the bus and to stop.
A Sad Statistic
About 120,000 times a year, a driver illegally passes a stopped school bus, according to the state Department of Education.
''Every now and then, we have had some scares,'' Seebaugh said.
Once in Boaz, he let a boy off and a car was coming the other way. The kid saw the car coming and just stood back as it went by. If he hadn't, there could have been a problem, Seebaugh said.
He usually doesn't have a lot of problems, but he has had situations where drivers have gone by him when he had his lights on indicating they should stop.
''I have had some, but it is not that often,'' Seebaugh said. ''People where I am at are usually pretty respectful.''
Some of the problem areas locally include West Virginia 2, Pike Street, W.Va. 47 around Kanawha School and W.Va. 14 around the southside Wal-Mart, said Dave Gant, Wood County Schools Bus Garage supervisor.
''People just don't realize it,'' he said. ''You take the chance of hitting a child when they get ready to cross the road in front of a bus. It puts the child in a really dangerous situation.''
There is a system where once the child exits the bus, he or she looks at the bus driver to get the OK to go across the road. However, the child doesn't always look up at the driver.
Gant said the problem of people passing school buses with their hazard lights on seems worse in the afternoon when everyone is heading home.
''You would think if you see a big yellow bus with the overhead lights flashing and the stop sign arm out flashing, people would stop, but there are still people running it,'' he said. ''People need to be cautious and conscientious about the situation when they see a bus stopped; it is very important they stop.
''That is a child going across that street.''
West Virginia school buses travel more than 41 million miles each year, transporting about 230,000 students each day to school safely and reliably, the WVDE reported.
In recent years, the West Virginia Legislature has strengthened state law. Now, drivers who don't stop for a stopped school bus can be charged with a felony. A driver who causes an injury faces up to three years in prison; a driver who kills someone can be sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The law increased fines for drivers who violate the school bus safety laws and introduced the potential for drivers to lose their license. Drivers who fail to stop can receive a misdemeanor and be jailed for up to six months.
More buses are being fitted with cameras that can take pictures of vehicles that do not adhere to the law, which can include getting a vehicle's license number. That information can then be turned over to law enforcement.
The West Virginia State Police, the Governor's Highway Safety Program, the West Virginia Department of Transportation, the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Institute, West Virginia media and the West Virginia Oil Marketers and Grocers Association joined with the WVDE Tuesday in increasing awareness.
One person was pulled over Tuesday because of the troopers being present, officials said. The incident occurred close to the Speedway station near the southside Wal-Mart along W.Va. 14.
''The point today was for us to be seen,'' said Cpl. C.M. Snodgrass of the West Virginia State Police. ''We wanted to make the point, to show that we are out there in the school zones.
''When you see that stop sign come out and those red flashing hazard lights come on a school bus, there is no doubt, you need to stop. There is a child crossing there.''