School bus speed limit weighed

House lawmakers are debating whether to increase the speed limit for school buses from 45 mph to 55 mph.

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Laura Leslie

The House Transportation Committee is debating a proposal that would let occupied school buses in North Carolina travel at 55 mph.

Current law restricts school buses to a top speed of 45 mph and and bans them from expressways if they're carrying students. There's an exception for activity buses, which are allowed to carry students on expressways at 55 mph for school trips.

Freshman Rep. Mark Brody, R-Union, is sponsoring House Bill 117. It would give counties the option to raise the speed limit to 55 mph for their school buses, occupied and unoccupied, on any road.

School bus drivers can – and often must – use highways to get from one route to another or to the maintenance yard. Brody says they're a hazard to themselves and other drivers because they're moving much more slowly than the surrounding traffic.

"It’s one of those situations where you experience it personally," Brody said. "You see it every day, and you say, 'There ought to be a law against this.'" 

"It’s just plain dangerous to go 45 mph on the expressway," he said. 

Brody said South Carolina and Georgia allow buses to travel at 55 mph, and Virginia allows 60 mph. Tennessee and Florida don't even put devices on their buses to restrict speed. He said other states have reported no safety issues at the higher speeds.

A few committee members spoke in support of the bill Tuesday, but they appeared to be outnumbered by opponents on both sides of the aisle.

"I can understand how people want those buses to go faster," said Rep. Mike Stone, R-Lee. But as a father of two, he added, "I don’t care they get home a few minutes earlier or later. I just care they get home safely. I kind of like it the way it is."

Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg, said the primary concern should be the safety of the students. "I’ve yet to see where the present system has become such a hindrance to motorists that we need to make a change."

Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, said she'd heard from a lot of parents who don't want the speed limit to be raised, adding that school buses in North Carolina still have no safety belts.

Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, said the narrow rural roads in his country would be unsafe for a bus traveling 55 mph.

Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, a co-sponsor of the bill, said he believes the "highly trained, highly regulated" drivers of school buses in North Carolina can be trusted not to exceed a safe speed for the road.

"We either believe in the goodness of man or the evilness of man. We choose to believe in the goodness," he argued.

But others pointed out that bus drivers are often school employees who hold other jobs, are poorly paid and often only minimally trained.

Rep. Bill Brisson, D-Bladen, said drivers often are under pressure to get their routes finished on time.

"These are human beings, these drivers," he said. "I know about being a human being, and it’s hard to hold when a vehicle will actually go faster.

"I just don’t see the benefit in the chances we’re taking," Brisson added. "You just lose that control. It’s taking a big, big step."

The committee ran out of time before a vote could be taken on the measure. It could be back on the agenda next Tuesday.

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