ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. -

Is there a higher priority than protecting our children? Most people would say they value children’s safety… but many of those same people may be putting children at risk.

Channel 4 investigates the problem happening at the worst possible moment. That's because it’s happening at the moment your child is walking onto the school bus or stepping off.  Drivers in a hurry or just ignorant to the law, whizzing past that big flashing stop arm that signals everyone that children could be in the roadway..

I rode along on Bus 215 in St. Johns County – driven by Bob Aponte, who says, "People just don’t want to be stuck behind a school bus!"

Video from mounted cameras on Florida buses (pictured, below) in a pilot program show drivers putting children at risk.  Channel 4 saw drivers piloting at a pace, and in a way, that seems to say: They don’t care.

That’s how the Florida Stop Arm Safety Coalition feels about it.

Katie Wiles Luebker, Florida Stop Arm Safety Coalition told us, “The modest inconvenience of an extra few seconds spent waiting for a stopped school bus is insignificant compared to the loss of a child's life.”

”It happened to my friend Robert before. By his stop, at Ocean Grande," said Sam Wentworth. a 9th grader at St. Augustine High School. "He was walking on the bus, a car went by, flew right by us."

Channel 4 rode the bus on the high school route to St. Augustine High School for a few days. We watched as almost all the drivers made the adjustment when Aponte’s school bus turned on the red lights – and pushed out the stop sign.

But that doesn’t happen all the time, and in Aponte’s mind – the opposite happens too often.

"I’d say every other day I may get a car that passes thru stop signs, after they’ve been activated," said Aponte.

Counties around the state turned in their numbers, charting how many times a vehicle or vehicles didn’t stop when a school bus stopped to pick up children, or let their passengers off.  In that single day – bus drivers reported more than 21-thousand cars passing stopped buses.

St. Johns County reported 117 incidents that particular day. Duval County, 1,600 motorists drove past – when they should have stopped.  In Clay County, bus drivers reported 238 motorists passing them on red.  Nassau county reported 33 drivers breaking the law. Baker County only had 5 incidents with 45 bus drivers reporting in information.  (See the 2012 state-wide county-by-county numbers here.)

That’s a lot of opportunity for children to get hurt. That’s also a hot-button issue for people like Channel 4's Crime and Safety Analyst Ken Jefferson.

”The reason it’s a pet peeve of mine – you’re dealing with the lives of children," he said.

Jefferson is a former Jacksonville Police Officer and recalls the reasons he heard when he pulled motorists over for this offense.  He says he'd hear, “didn’t pay attention,” “didn’t see it,” or “didn’t do it.”

”None of those are acceptable, because they weren’t paying attention. Which means these children’s lives are in danger, when they’re not paying attention, when they don’t see it, or they’re speeding,” said Jefferson.

Drivers I spoke with genuinely seemed concerned about every child filling up their seats. While they recognize they can’t control what other motorists do, they focus specifically on what they as drivers can do to protect - all the kids on their buses.

Joe Purvis directs the St. Johns County Schools Transportation department. He has instructors like Aponte teaching new drivers the basics and Purvis says those basics always include teaching drivers to train the children on their buses how to stay safe.  Plus, they learn defensive tactics.  Aponte says drivers can miss what should be obvious.

”When I grew up, red always meant stop, green meant go – no matter what I was doing,” he said.

Jefferson stood on a busy corner with me, watching traffic, and caught someone breaking the law at that very  moment.  It ramps up the concern that Jefferson says he saw it too often as an officer.

”I saw them blow right past it, as though the bus was not stopped," said Jefferson.  "That is total negligence, and I’m grateful there haven’t been many fatalities as a result of that.”

That’s the part everyone in this story wants to see change.  No more cars rolling past the red lights and the stop arm on school buses – when the children stepping on or stepping off a bus, are most at risk.

"There’s a lot of potential out there, purely by accident, to hit a child or children crossing the road. That should be a concern for all of us, and argue for more attention from us as we’re driving,” said Purvis (pictured, left with Justice).

Wentworth told me, ”It’s definitely not safe, happens too often and should be stopped.”

The Stop Arm Safety Coalition is trying to see laws change.  The organization supported a Florida House bill and a Florida Senate Bill which puts cameras on school buses where you can see the Stop Arms extended.  Any cars that pass by that Stop Arm are also captured on video.  

They are cameras designed to help enforce the rule, that drivers stop behind a school bus with a stop signal.

In the case of House Bill 669 and Senate Bill 950, with the end of session nearly here, the legislation is not looking good. The coalition says they struggled to get committees even to hear it.

Drivers may be unclear of the rules when it comes to stopping for a stopped school bus.  Here's what you need to know from floridaschoolbussafety.gov:

Section 316.172, Florida Statutes
Motor Vehicle Laws

316.172 Traffic to stop for school bus. ---

(1) (a) Any person using, operating, or driving a vehicle on or over the roads or highways of this state shall, upon approaching any school bus which displays a stop signal, bring such vehicle to a full stop while the bus is stopped, and the vehicle shall not pass the school bus until the signal has been withdrawn. A person who violates this section commits a moving violation, punishable as provided in chapter 318.

(b) Any person using, operating, or driving a vehicle that passes a school bus on the side that children enter and exit when the school bus displays a stop signal commits a moving violation, punishable as provided in chapter 318, and is subject to a mandatory hearing under the provisions of s. 318.19.

(2) The driver of a vehicle upon a divided highway with an unpaved space of at least 5 feet, a raised median, or a physical barrier is not required to stop when traveling in the opposite direction of a school bus which is stopped in accordance with the provisions of this section.

(3) Every school bus shall stop as far to the right of the street as possible and shall display warning lights and stop signals as required by rules of the State Board of Education before discharging or loading passengers. When possible, a school bus shall not stop where the visibility is obscured for a distance of 200 feet either way from the bus.

Read more in the 2013 Florida Driver's Handbook

Florida’s School Bus Stop Law

The following is a summary of Florida’s school bus stop law requirements:

  • Florida Motor Vehicles Laws require that motorists stop upon approaching any school bus which displays its flashing red lights and has its stop signs extended.
  • Interested parties should refer to sections 316.172, 318.18, 318.19, and 322.0261, Florida Statutes (FS), for the specific language in the law. Florida Statutes can be found at http://www.leg.state.fl.us/
  • Section 316.172, FS provides that:
    • Drivers who pass a school bus illegally on the left side commit a moving violation, punishable under Chapter 318, FS.
    • Drivers who pass a school bus illegally on the right side where students enter or exit the bus commit a moving violation, punishable under Chapter 318, FS and are subject to a mandatory hearing.
  • Amount of penalties (Section 318.18, FS):
    • Left hand pass:

      1st offense: $165
      2nd or subsequent offense (within 5 years): $165 plus license suspension for 90 days to 6 months

    • Right hand pass:
      1st offense: $265
      2nd or subsequent offense (within 5 years): $265, license suspension for 180 days to one year, plus a mandatory hearing

  • Driver improvement course (Section 322.0261, FS):
    • The offender must, in addition to other applicable penalties, attend a DHSMV-approved driver improvement course. If the operator fails to complete the course within 90 days after receiving notice, his or her driver license will be canceled until the course is successfully completed.

  • For any violation of Section 316.72, FS, 4 points assessed against driver license (Section 322.27, FS):
    Points:Within:License suspension, up to:
    121 year30 days
    1818 months90 days
    243 years1 year