Knox County law enforcement agencies say they're going to be taking a harder look at drivers who pass stopped school buses this year. And Knox County District Attorney Charme Allen says violations will now carry enhanced penalties.
More than 600 such incidents were reported in the 2017-2018 school year, Knox County Schools security chief Gus Padouisis told reporters Friday. The reports came from the contractor that operates Knox County's school bus fleet.
While many drivers know stopping for school buses is the law, D.A. Charme Allen says questions and misconceptions arise around the specifics: Do I have to stop if the bus' own stop sign isn't deployed? Am I required to stop if I'm driving the opposite way on a divided highway?
The answer to both, Allen said, is yes. Divided highways are those whose lanes are separated by a median, a concrete wall, or other physical barrier (think Pellissippi Parkway, or parts of Alcoa Highway). In that case, drivers traveling in the opposite lanes are not required to stop for school buses.
But - and this is a big but, Allen said - a four-lane highway whose middle is a turn lane is not considered a divided highway (think Broadway, Chapman Highway, John Sevier Highway and many others). On those roads, all drivers must stop.
It may seem like a minor infraction for someone in a hurry, but Allen, Padouisis, Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler and Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas said the danger to kids is very real.
"As drivers, we have to be aware of what children are doing," Thomas said. "And they're unpredictable at times."
Drivers who break the law will be penalized more harshly in the past. State law allows for fines ranging from $250 to $1,000, but no jail time. The Knox County District Attorney's office says that doesn't bar them from bringing more serious charges if a child is hit and injured, or for other violations connected to the driver's actions.
"There are other [charges] that could be applied," Allen said. "That could be reckless endangerment...other misdemeanors, or even felonies."