WRAL Investigates

In NC, few drivers found guilty of passing school buses

Posted August 24, 2015 6:15 p.m. EDT
Updated August 25, 2015 9:51 a.m. EDT

— Each day, about 3,000 vehicles illegally pass stopped school buses in North Carolina, putting children’s lives in danger, according to research by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Last year, nearly 1,300 drivers in the state went to court for passing a school bus. Of those, only 379 drivers, or 29 percent, were found guilty of the charge, which carries a $500 fine and five points on a driver’s license.

When can you not pass a school bus? Find out in the N.C. school bus stop law.

School systems across the state have started using cameras to catch drivers, but WRAL Investigates found that still might not be enough to turn charges into convictions.

Many say the problem is in the courtroom. The initial cameras on buses only caught a driver's license plate. North Carolina is one of 14 states in the country where a license plate number is not enough to prosecute a driver. Instead, the driver must be identified.

That's a tougher standard than getting nabbed on a toll road, where a license plate number is enough to bill drivers. People can only get out of paying by submitting a signed legal document identifying someone else as the driver.

That standard is having a negative impact on conviction rates for passing stopped school buses. Last year, only 10 counties in the state convicted 50 percent or more of the drivers charged with passing a stopped bus, including Wake, Durham, Orange and Johnston counties.

In 2013, state lawmakers strengthened the penalties for drivers who blow by stopped buses. Now, state Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, is sponsoring legislation to hold drivers more accountable. Like a toll road, the bill puts more burden on the vehicle owner.

“It’s your car. You are responsible for that car,” Dollar said. “The purpose of this bill is to ensure that we can get those convictions.”

Cumberland County and others are now installing more comprehensive camera systems.

“(We have) one camera here that’s pointing towards the front of the bus. Directly underneath the stop arm here, there’s a camera that’s pointing out, capturing the picture of the driver and seeing who the driver of the vehicle is," said Charles Bell, Cumberland County Schools' transportation director.

The goal is to hold more offenders responsible.

“The courts will have the evidence and they will be convicted, and they're going to think twice about speeding around a stopped school bus and putting our children in danger,” Dollar said.

According to the state Department of Public Instruction, 7 percent of school buses across the state have multiple camera systems installed so far.