Last-minute repairs

County school bus mechanics, from left, Brandon Lewis and Dean Weippert make last minute repairs and checks on a bus Thursday in preparation for the opening of the 2019-20 academic year, set for Monday. (Cheryl Burke photo)

BEAUFORT — It’s time once again for county drivers to be on the alert for slowing and stopped school buses, which hit the roads Monday for the first day of the 2019-20 academic year.

“We are asking drivers to be patient and allow a little extra time for travel, especially those first few days when students and parents are in the learning phase for a new year,” Lloyd Willis, director of transportation for the county school system, said.

“Please remember. When you see the yellow amber lights come on that means to slow down. When you see the red flashing lights, it means to stop,” he added.

The only exception to that rule is for drivers on a divided highway with four or more lanes or a center turning lane. In those cases, only traffic following the school bus needs to stop.

In all other cases, traffic traveling both ways must stop.

Mr. Willis, and drivers picking up their buses Thursday at the county school bus garage, said the safety of students is the top priority. Of major concern is drivers who illegally pass stopped buses.

West Carteret High School bus driver Anneliesse Curet-Colon said, “A life is more important than getting somewhere on time. Be aware of your local school routine and the times buses will be on the roads. It may be that drivers can adjust their schedules to avoid those times, or leave a little early.”

Ms. Curet-Colon, who has driven a bus for three years, said it’s common to have drivers pass her bus when the stop arm is extended.

“I even had the parent of a student on my bus do it one time,” she said.

According to a N.C. Department of Transportation press release issued Aug. 16, on average, there are nearly 3,000 incidents of vehicles passing stopped school buses every school day in North Carolina. As well as endangering the lives of students, it can be costly to a violator who gets caught.

Penalties for passing a stopped school bus include a $500 fine and an additional four insurance points, which could increase insurance rates by 80%.

Mr. Willis said a one-day stop arm violation count conducted in the county last year showed that 17 drivers illegally passed county school buses.

To aid in the safety of bus travel, Mr. Willis said the state provided four new stop arm cameras to the county school bus fleet this year. That makes a total of 15 of the county’s 98 yellow buses now equipped with cameras to record when a driver illegally passes a bus with the stop arm extended.

Buses with cameras are assigned to routes with the highest number of incidents of drivers illegally passing buses.

Mr. Willis thanked local law enforcement for stepping up efforts to catch violators.

“We’ve had great support from our local authorities and highway patrol in catching those violating the stop arm law,” Mr. Willis said. “We appreciate their support in catching these people.”

Another way that school officials are working to ensure the safety of students is gradually acquiring school buses equipped with seatbelts.

“We added a new bus with seatbelts this year. That means we now have 23 buses with seatbelts,” Mr. Willis said.

Because of the high cost of installing seatbelts on buses, Mr. Willis has asked the state to provide buses equipped with seatbelts each time a new bus is provided to replace an older bus.

To cut down on the amount of time that a student stands by the road waiting for a bus in the morning, the school system is once again offering the smartphone app Here Comes the Bus to parents and students.

The app tracks the route of each bus and alerts parents and students when the bus is nearing their home. Mr. Willis said last year about half of the families with students riding buses used the app. Information will be given out at each school for those interested in downloading and using the app.

Mechanics at the school bus garage also work to ensure students have safe transportation to and from school. They were busy last week doing inspections on buses and working to repair any last-minute mechanical surprises that popped up.

“If drivers have an issue with a bus they can stop and ask us about it,” mechanic Don Shoptaugh said. “I’ve been a mechanic for 11 years and the top priority is the safety of the kids and drivers.”

While Mr. Willis said state statistics show transporting students on buses is the safest means of getting students to school, many parents opt to drive their children or allow them to ride bikes or walk.

NCDOT officials encourage drivers to slow down and obey the posted speed limit in a school zone to allow for the additional traffic.

In addition, officials encourage drivers dropping off or picking up children to be cautious and watch out for students.

“Never pass a vehicle that is stopped for pedestrians, and always stop and yield to pedestrians crossing the crosswalk or intersection in a school zone when flashers are blinking,” the NCDOT press release stated.

For motorists, here is a breakdown of rules for passing a school bus on various types of roads:

•    On a two-lane road, all traffic from both directions must stop.

•    On a two-lane road with a center turning lane, all traffic must come to a stop.

•    On a four-lane road without a median, traffic from both directions must stop.

•    In the case of a divided highway with four or more lanes, only traffic following the school bus needs to stop.

•    When on a road with four lanes or more with a center turning lane, just traffic following the bus must stop.

Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.

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