Police target motorists passing school buses

Rusty Marks
Students get ready to board a school bus on Charleston's West Side on Monday. Education officials have asked police officers to ride along on buses to help catch people who illegally pass when the bus has its stop sign extended and red lights on.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sam Gasaway stopped his school bus in a turn on Charleston's West Side on Monday morning, extended a lighted sign labeled "STOP" and opened the door to let some children on board.A car stopped beside the bus, then pulled on ahead, disregarding the stop sign.A State Police trooper in the front seat saw the infraction and called to an unmarked car following behind. Within a block, the offending driver was pulled over and given a ticket."This is a weekly thing, if not daily," said Gasaway, who has been driving a school bus for the past two years. "Friday, on my afternoon run, it happened three times."School officials are teaming up with law enforcement officers all over the state to crack down on drivers who illegally pass school buses. Education officials said about 600 people a day disregard the stop signs on the sides of buses -- and state law -- and illegally drive around a school bus that is either picking up or dropping off kids.Some of those drivers pass on the right, directly where students are getting onto and off of the bus. State School Superintendent Jorea Marple said the statistics are particularly worrying because about 75 percent of West Virginia's students, or about 230,000 children, rely on school buses for transportation.In 2007, Haven McCarthy, 6, of Lincoln County was killed when she was hit by a car that illegally drove around a school bus. The driver pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was fined $50.
Lawmakers responded with Haven's Law, which makes it a felony to illegally pass a school bus. A driver who kills a child can now spend up to 10 years in prison.Even so, Gasaway and state education and transportation officials say many drivers are unaware of the law. At a press conference Monday, Marple said that with help from the West Virginia Oil Marketers & Grocers Association, posters will be going up at convenience stores all over the state reminding drivers that the law requires that they stop for a school bus that is taking on or dropping off children.School officials are conducting a study now of people illegally passing school buses. On a recent day in Cabell County, people illegally passed a bus 34 times.State Police Sgt. C.K. Zerkle said troopers and other law enforcement officers will be riding on school buses all over the state to catch drivers who ignore a school bus' stop sign and flashing red lights."If you see those red lights on the school buses, you'd better stop," Zerkle said. "Because if you don't, the next lights you see will be blue lights." Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215. 
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