From a block away, we could see the little boy waiting by the side of Leesburg Pike. As Mark Stevens began to brake, he flicked on the red warning lights atop his Fairfax County school bus. Then he turned to me and said:
What I saw astonished me. First a green Hornet, then a green Toyota sped blithely past our stopped school bus, at about 35 miles an hour each. If the child for whom we stopped had been coming from across the street, he might have been killed.
But such flagrant lawbreaking doesn't astonish Mark Stevens any more. In four years as a school bus driver for the county, he has seen the state's thou-shalt-stop-when-a-school-bus-does law violated thousands of times.
In fact, as we pulled away from the scene of the crimes on Leesburg Pike the other morning, Mark said to me over his shoulder:
A situation where a kid might have been killed isn't bad?
"Well, sure it's bad. But what I mean is, it's not unusual, considering the traffic," Mark said. "Usually, we get half a dozen cars running the lights there. Two's not many."
Disregarding stopped school buses has always been a problem that drip-drip-dripped. Lately, however, according to Joe Higgins, director of transportation for the Fairfax schools, it has begun to gush, not just in Fairfax but all around the Washington area.
Why? "I can't really say, except that I suppose there's more traffic than ever," Higgins said. "I hate to admit this, but in a county like ours, I think the motorists think they can get away with it."
And sadly, they do. Northern Virginia law enforcement authorities say that prosecutions of school bus "passers" (technically a form of reckless driving under state law) are rare. Convictions are rarer.
The penalties in Virginia are stiffer than elsewhere in the area, however.
According to Ann Ober, a spokeswoman for the Division of Motor Vehicles in Richmond, a first conviction carries a maximum fine of $1,000 and a maximum jail term of 12 months. However, a subsequent conviction within a year carries a mandatory jail term of ten days and a mandatory fine of $100. Neither Maryland nor the District has a mandatory punishment on the books.
Curiously, even as the overall problem gets worse in Fairfax, some motorists there get better. "Sometimes you get people who stop for your turn signals," said Barbara Nelms, the representative from the Annandale High School district to the Fairfax County School Bus Drivers' Advisory Council. "I only wish they were as careful at the times they should be."
After a morning riding with Mark Stevens, I can only add a heartfelt amen. During Mark's three-hour route, a total of four motorists passed our bus when it was stopped. Each time, the motorist saved perhaps 30 seconds, never more.
Does a child have to be killed before we obey the law?