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School starts soon, watch for buses

By Officer Charles Kelly

Poplarville Police Department

The beginning of the 2021 -2022 school year in Pearl River County is barely four            weeks away. With the coming of a new school year, it is vitally important for all of Pearl River County’s citizens to remember the importance of doing our best to ensure the safety of our school children as they head off to school this fall. An important part of seeing to the safety of our children is to obey all traffic laws, particularly the laws involving school buses.

Approximately 24 million children ride a school bus to school each day in the United States, and based on information collected over several years it is estimated that nationwide approximately 15-million times a year, a driver will elect to illegally pass a stopped school bus that is in the process of loading or unloading children. According to the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the Institute for Transportation Research and Education, the number of such violations nationwide averages to over 83,000 violations per day and over 400 child fatalities over the past four decades.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, along with other sources, revealed that while boarding or disembarking from a stopped school bus an average of 19 school children are killed or injured each year by drivers who ignore the law and illegally pass a stopped school bus with its stop sign deployed and flashing red lights activated. To add to the tragedy, it has been determined that the average ages of those children who are the victims of such violations range from 5- to 7-years-old. All 50 states have laws relating to the requirements for vehicles which are approaching a stopped school bus, however the tragedies involving children who are injured or killed by such traffic violations continue. These tragedies are not only inexcusable, they are totally unnecessary.

And the problem keeps getting worse each year. According to the Directors of Transportation for the Poplarville, Pearl River Central, and Picayune school districts, during the 2020 – 2021 school year there were over 400 reported cases of drivers illegally passing stopped school buses which were in the process of loading or unloading school children, and this number is very conservative. The potential for tragedy arising from such traffic violations is real and has occurred far too many times in recent years.

In December of 2020, one of the most recent tragedies occurred in Vardaman, Miss. which is located in Calhoun County. The driver of one of the local school buses was on her afternoon route and stopped to drop off two elementary school aged children. As the children were crossing the road in front of the school bus, the driver of an 18-wheeler passed the stopped school bus, which had its emergency red lights activated and its stop sign deployed. The truck struck both children, killing one instantly. The other child’s injuries were severe enough to require an emergency air lift to a trauma center. The driver was subsequently charged with manslaughter and aggravated assault.

In November of 2018, in an WLBT news interview, a bus driver from Clinton, Miss. stated that he along with other local school bus drivers experienced daily occurrences of drivers passing stopped school buses. And this problem is not limited to the state of Mississippi.

Several years ago, within a one-week time span, multiple incidents involving traffic violations with school buses occurred around the country. In an incident which occurred in Indiana, a truck violated a school bus “stop” arm, striking four children in the process. One of the children, only 11-years-old, was critically injured, and the other three, one age 9 and twin boys age 6, were all killed instantly. In another incident which occurred the following day in Lee County, a 9-year-old was struck and killed when the driver of a vehicle ran a school bus stop sign. And the tragedies go on. In Tampa, Fla. two adults and three children were injured which a motorist committed a traffic violation at a school bus stop. A similar incident occurred in Franklin, Penn. where a student was struck and injured while waiting at a school bus stop. And these tragedies are only a fraction of the total number of such devastating events involving school children and school buses around the nation.

Mississippi Code 63-3-615 states, “Meeting or overtaking school bus, requires that any motorist who is approaching a school bus which is stopped and has its flashing red lights and stop sign activated – indicating the bus is in the process of loading or unloading school children – must come to a complete stop at least 10 feet from the school bus, and shall not proceed until all children are clear of the roadway and the school bus’s red lights and stop sign are deactivated.”

Another important fact is this; According to MS Code 63-3-615(4): “If the driver of any vehicle is witnessed by a law enforcement officer or the driver of a school bus to have violated this section and the identity of the driver of the vehicle is not otherwise apparent, the registered owner of the vehicle involved in the violation is considered responsible for committing the violation.”

In January of 2009, an incident occurred in Mississippi which marked a turning point in the criminal liability of motorists who violate traffic laws involving school buses. On December 11, 2009 a 5-year-old North Jones elementary school student named Nathan Key was struck and killed by a motorist who illegally passed the school bus he was disembarking from. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Mississippi Senate Bill 2472 was signed into law by former Gov. Haley Barbour.

Later to become known as “Nathan’s Law,” it went into effect on July 1, 2011.

Under Nathan’s Law, a driver who strikes a child in the process of violating Mississippi’s law regarding passing stopped school buses may be charged with felony aggravated assault. The legal consequences can be severe, including a felony conviction and a prison sentence of up to 20 years. And for the violation of passing a stopped school bus alone the fines can be severe, ranging from $350 for the first offense to over $1,500 for subsequent offenses. In addition, drivers who are convicted of violating this law may face a 90-day suspension of their driver’s license.

But apart from the legal consequences, it is far more important to look at the tragic reality of the death of a child. One child who is killed or injured as a result of the violation this very simple law is too many. It’s time for all of Pearl River County’s citizens to stand up and take charge of our children’s safety. Anyone who witnesses a driver who illegally passes a stopped school bus, if at all possible, should attempt as safely as possible to obtain the license plate number of the vehicle, a description of the vehicle and the driver (if possible), and report this information to the director of transportation for the applicable school district or the responsible law enforcement agency. Remember, our citizens are a critical part of enforcing this law. Our police officers and sheriff’s department deputies cannot be everywhere at once. It takes everyone working together to make our county and our children just a little bit safer.

Speed limits and traffic laws exists for a reason. They serve to promote safety for everyone on our county roadways. Remember: Arrive Alive… and make sure our children do as well.