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Schools, ECSO out to stop bus passing
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Two Effingham County school buses stop while another bus drops off students at the end of the day. This stretch of Highway 21 is an example of where all traffic in both directions must stop for a bus that has its red lights flashing and stop sign extended. - photo by Photo by Paul Floeckher

Jimmy Helmly and Brian Mundy have no shortage of stories of local drivers not following the rules for a stopped school bus.

There was the log truck that sped past the side of the bus a student was exiting. And the driver who complained about the length of time a disabled student took to board the bus. And many others who protested the citations they received, even though a deputy or camera caught them in the act.

The drivers involved tend to have a common attitude toward school bus laws, according to Mundy, the commander of the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office traffic enforcement unit.

“Most of them don’t care,” he said.

“It’s just people trying to get ahead of the bus,” said Helmly, the Effingham County School System’s transportation director. “Sometimes, if traffic isn’t coming, they’ll pull up in the lane beside the bus and wait until the stop sign comes out to shoot by the bus to get in front of it.”

With another school year under way, local officials are urging drivers to pay attention to school buses. On a road with just one lane in each direction, all traffic must stop for a bus that has its red lights flashing and stop sign extended.

On a divided highway, only the vehicles behind the bus must stop. However, on a multi-lane road without a median, all traffic in both directions must stop when a bus does.

“A turn lane is not a physically-divided median, and you’re to stop in both directions,” Helmly said. “And most people don’t.”

Confusion over the rules for multi-lane highways is just part of the problem, though. Mundy pointed to frequent violations on Highway 80 by drivers who are traveling in the same direction as the school bus.

“It’s so bad down there that the bus will stop and the cars are just steady the same direction,” he said. “And the other side is still going, too. They think, ‘Oh, well, there’s a divided roadway.’ It’s not divided.”

A bus driver’s quick actions potentially saved a student’s life last year, according to Helmly. A log truck passed on the right side of the bus as a student was about to step off.

School officials reviewed the bus’ video and confirmed its red lights were flashing while it was stopped on Highway 21. The student started down the steps, but the driver pulled him back as the truck sounded its horn and sped past the bus’ door.

“She heard that and looked in a mirror and saw the truck come up on her,” Helmly said. “She grabbed (the student’s) book bag as the log truck went by on the emergency lane.”

All Effingham County school buses are equipped with inside cameras, Superintendent Randy Shearouse said. Also, ECSO deputies randomly ride along on school buses and follow them along their routes.

A ticket for unlawfully passing a school bus carries a $1,000 fine. It also puts six points on a driver’s license, the maximum number for a traffic offense in Georgia.

The problem was illustrated in just one day this past spring. Effingham school officials surveyed morning and afternoon bus routes and noted more than 50 instances of people disregarding a school bus stop sign.

“There were thousands (of cases) in the state of Georgia that day of running stop signs,” Helmly said.

While some drivers are aggressive, others are simply impatient. Helmly shared a story of a woman who, for three straight days, drove past a special-needs bus that stopped to pick up a child who uses a wheelchair.

“So the guy who was driving the bus said, ‘I’m going to stop this,’” Helmly said. “He walked over there and said something to her about running the sign and she said, ‘Y’all ought to load him up faster. You’re holding me up.’”