“Bright flashing lights, and ‘stop’ arm out, but still,” bus driver Mike Case said, “I have people that fly past my bus.”
Bus drivers in the Clinton Public School District see daily occurrences of people violating the law by passing stopped buses. The practice puts children’s lives at risk, and drivers are concerned that if it doesn’t stop it will have dire consequences.
Case says that most drivers around him do not seem aware of his presence, even though he is in a 40 foot, bright yellow bus.
“I see them [drivers] on their cell phones, sometimes I even see drivers with headphones in,” he said. “One time, I had just let some children off my bus when a delivery truck flew by me. The driver didn’t even hesitate at the lights and the arm and those kids were out of my bus getting ready to cross. I don’t even want to imagine.”
Sadly, Case wouldn’t have to look far to find how situations like this can end in tragedy. In Indiana a truck ran a bus “stop” arm and an 11-year-old was critically injured, and three others; a sister, 9-year-old, and two brothers, twin 6-year-olds, were all declared dead at the scene. The following day out of Lee County, a 9-year-old student was struck and killed by a motorist driving through the bus stop sign.
And the incidents don’t stop there. Three children and two adults in Tampa, Fla., all were critically injured after being hit by a motorist at their bus stop. A student in Franklin, Penn., also was critically injured while waiting on his bus. All of these incidents occurred within a one-week span of time.
Another Mississippi fatality was 5-year-old Nathan Key who was killed in a bus accident in 2009. Following his death, state lawmakers passed a law making it illegal not to stop for buses with their lights flashing and stop arm extended.
Under “Nathan’s Law,” fines for stop-arm running range from $350 to $750 for a first offense and $750 to $1,500 for a second or subsequent offense, which will also result in a driver’s license suspension of 90 days.
“My hope is that the drivers around Clinton will respect the stop sign and flashing lights, stop an appropriate distance back from the bus and watch for exiting students,” said CPSD Transportation Director Donny Gray.
Trina Johnson drives a route for CPSD that is on Highway 49.
“I have had cars pass me on my door side while I have been stopped,” she said. “If I hadn’t been keeping aware and held those kids at the door they would have been hit.”
Johnson said that putting the yellow lights on when she is a little ways from her stop is not an invitation to speed up, but cars seem to take it that way.
“First, I put my yellow lights on to alert all those around me that there is a stop coming up, then as I am stopping the red lights go on and the stop arm goes out,” she said.
When a driver sees this, she said, they are not supposed pass the bus. Not only is passing a bus that is flashing yellow and coming to a stop illegal, “[drivers] do not know where those students are going, students could be crossing in front of the bus or just exiting the side door – it doesn’t matter, drivers need to stop,” she said.
Clinton Police Sgt. Al Kimbrell said, “the bus drivers do their best to send me the plate number, but it seems that the regular stop arm and lights are not enough to deter drivers from illegally passing.”
The safety of the kids is the top priority of bus drivers, and Jeanette Lewis who has been driving for 20 years does her best to make each of her days about the kids.
“When I get in my bus my head is clear, anything I might be going through, might be thinking that would distract me, it is left in my car,” she said.
Lewis said her primary goal each morning is to show her students a good attitude and to bring them to their destination in a safe and timely manner.
“Sometimes we are the first face a student is seeing that morning, and we [bus drivers] have to be on our game, have to have a good attitude because we are transporting precious cargo,” she said.
Melinda Davis, also a driver for CPSD agrees.
“I don’t want any students to get hurt, and it is a constant worry,” she said. “If one of these kids is hurt on my watch, even if I am following every rule perfectly, that will still be on me and I will have to live with it for the rest of my life,” she said.
David Willoughby, a mechanic and sub-bus driver for CPSD agreed: “It’s not easy, we are watching the road, we are watching the kids, we are watching the weather, and we are watching our schedule.”
Melinda Davis urged the community to help in protecting students and preventing accidents from happening.
“Bus drivers can’t do this all themselves,” she said. “Keeping our students safe needs to be a group effort, a community effort, let’s all make each day a safe day.”
The Clinton Police Department takes bus safety very seriously. Anyone who witnesses a driver passing a stopped school bus with stop arm extended and/or lights flashing is encouraged to call CPD immediately at 601-924-5252 with a vehicle description or a tag number.
A bus driver waits to pick up students from Clinton High School. Motorists illegally passing stopped school buses is a daily occurrence in Clinton.