RALEIGH, N.C. — A critical bus safety issue grabbed wide-reaching attention thanks to an in-depth media campaign developed by news outlet WNCN with the help of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI).
Students safely boarding and exiting school buses is a top concern in the industry, yet it may get minimal public attention during the year. But with WNCN’s campaign created with help from NCDPI, the stop-arm safety conversation is continuing.
It began with a press release developed by NCDPI’s Lynda Fuller, information and communication specialist, at the request of Derek Graham, NCDPI’s section chief of transportation services. The release included compelling statistics: In an annual one-day stop-arm violation count, NCDPI tracked over 3,000 motorists illegally passing stopped school buses. Since the 1998-99 school year, 13 students in North Carolina have lost their lives as a result of stop-arm running. In the last two school years alone, five students have been killed.
An unusual idea was proposed to enhance the story: allowing TV news crews on board buses to shoot footage. Dr. Jim Merrill, superintendent of the Wake County Public School System, was open to the idea, Fuller noted.
Timing also helped, as North Carolina has both traditional calendar schools and year-round schools. With active bus routes available, news crews had time to film well ahead of the first day of the traditional calendar.
One of the crews that took part was from WNCN. What they filmed spoke volumes about safety: motorists violating the stopped school bus laws. That compelling “3,000 a day” statistic from the NCDPI now had video evidence from local news investigators.
Meanwhile, a WNCN producer had pitched the same stopped school bus safety idea to her team. “Carey Gough had seen her own child exit a school bus … and saw a clear safety issue that needed to be addressed immediately,” recalled Robby Thomas, WNCN’s director of marketing.
Reporter Jonathan Rodriguez secured an interview with Rosabell Martinez, aunt of Alyiah Morgan, a Sampson County first grader who died in 2013 after being hit by a truck as she exited the bus. Martinez gave an unforgettable message about the importance of not ignoring stop arms.
Thomas then went on to organize social media and promotional efforts, coined “#Brake4Buses,” a digital game plan to raise awareness for the issue.
Rodriguez’s report aired on Aug. 25, the lead story on the first day of Wake County’s traditional school calendar. It included interviews with Graham and Martinez, WNCN’s footage of the motorists passing a stopped bus, and footage from school bus stop-arm cameras.
A companion story was posted online, including a link to a WNCN-created interactive map showing the stop-arm violation tallies by county from the NCDPI’s one-day count.
At the same time, WNCN launched the #BrakeforBuses campaign so drivers, parents and viewers could discuss their concerns online.
Less than a month after Rodriguez’s piece aired, three car accidents involving students at their bus stops, one fatal, occurred in Johnson and Wake counties. WNCN reported these stories under the banner of #Brake4Buses, reminding the audience that these were preventable tragedies.
The news station’s commitment to the cause is continuing.
“Because WNCN’s coverage went viral on social media, reaching over 25 million people, the decision to create a public service announcement [PSA] was made,” Thomas said.
The 30-second spot, titled “#Brake4Buses,” focuses on drivers illegally passing school bus stop arms.
“The PSA highlights the responsibility of all parties involved,” Graham added. “Certainly motorists need to pay attention and obey the law. Students also have a responsibility to keep an eye on approaching vehicles when standing near or stepping into the roadway. We hope parents will use this as an opportunity to have this important safety discussion with their children.”
The message seems to be resonating: Thomas said that the spot was going national. At press time, at least five of WNCN’s sister stations across the country had committed to airing the PSA.
Lisa Hudson is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C.