August 21, 2019Following the death of three children who were struck and killed by a motorist while crossing the road to get on the school bus in Fulton County last fall, state lawmakers took action, including increasing the penalties for stop-arm violations. School and law enforcement officials hope the changes will prevent future tragedies.
Rocky Gray, who has driven a bus for the Crawford County Community School Corp. for eight years, including bus No. 33 at what is now West Crawford Elementary School for the past six, said stop-arm violations happen every year.
"Since I started driving bus 33, I have probably averaged four or five stop-arm runners each school year on S.R. 64," he said.
Of those, three or four were when students had to cross the highway.
"Fortunately, I had held the kids to make sure the cars came to a stop," Gray said. "Most drivers have hand signals they use to communicate with their students.
"A new law passed this July that prohibits students from crossing the highway should help greatly. Although it may add a few miles and minutes, it will improve safety."
The new law, Indiana Code 9-21-12-20, which took effect on July 1, states that, when a school bus is operated on a highway, a bus driver is prohibited from loading or unloading a student at a location that requires the student to cross a roadway unless no other safe alternatives are available.
That law also requires bus drivers, when driving on a street or highway other than a U.S. route or state route, to load and unload a student as close to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway as practicable.
The state legislature also stiffened the penalties for motorists who pass a school bus when its stop-arm is extended. Prior to July 1, recklessly passing a school bus stop-arm was a Class B misdemeanor; whereas, it is now a Class A misdemeanor. Furthermore, when causing bodily injury, the penalty increased from a Class A misdemeanor to a Level 6 felony. If the stop-arm violation results in death, it is a Level 5 felony.
While the tougher penalties may be a deterrent, they don't make the jobs of police easier, said Kelly Hammond, who is the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division Squad Leader for the Indiana State Police, supervising Commercial Vehicle Enforcement officers in Area 3, which consists of the Jasper, Bloomington and Evansville districts.
"Unfortunately, law enforcement is spread too thin to follow each and every bus morning and evening. It is still going to be upon the bus drivers or families involved to report," he said.
Noting that on a one-day count conducted by the Indiana Department of Education in April the 180 participating school districts in the state reported 2,530 stop-arm violations, Hammond said violations should be reported by bus drivers to their school's transportation director or administration immediately on the radio and then forwarded to local law enforcement.
"We would like to get a quick report to include location with direction of travel, description of vehicle, description of driver and license plate. That is typically hard to do in a short amount of time it takes for a vehicle to run through a stop, but any information would help with an initial investigation," he said.
Unfortunately, Hammond said, there have been times when he has only learned about a violation through social media and then had to contact the bus driver.
Crawford County Prosecutor Cheryl Hillenburg agreed with Hammond that the new penalties will not make her job easier.
"In my opinion, the most important aspect of implementing changes in the law is that additional safeguards were instituted to ensure children's safety while being loaded and unloaded from school buses," she said.
What may make making an arrest and getting a conviction easier — at least within Crawford County — is the upgrade to high-definition cameras on buses.
Jamie Smith, the assistant superintendent and transportation director at Crawford County Community School Corp., said all of the cameras on the corporation's buses will be upgraded to 1080p high-definition and that all but activity buses, which do not have stop-arms, will have forward- and rear-facing cameras on the stop-arms.
The improved cameras are part on an overall upgrade that will see the number of internal cameras on general education buses increased from three to four and the number on both special needs and activity buses increased from one to three.
"The stop-arm cameras will be mounted below the stop-arm on the driver's side of the bus and record constant when the bus is started," Smith said. "The DVR unit will indicate on the video when the amber lights are activated and also when the stop-arm is deployed. This will be an important factor in the use of video evidence and prosecution."
Smith said the corporation averages two or three stop-arm violations per week and "unfortunately, the majority of the violations are intentional."
"We have had a few close calls over the past several years," he said. "Last year, we had a car pass from behind the bus on the curb side of the bus as the student was in the stairwell preparing to exit."
Smith said bus drivers are frustrated because they feel helpless at times, because, without a license plate number, it is difficult to bring charges against violators.
Gray agreed, saying, "If a driver passes at a high rate of speed, it is almost impossible to get a license plate number. Even then, it's one driver's word against the other."
The stop-arm cameras will help greatly, he said.
"They take a picture of the car and license plate," Gray said. "They also record info from the driver, such as how much notice he gave the other to stop, which also plays a part in prosecuting runners."
Smith said the goal with the cameras isn't just to catch offenders, but to reduce the number of violations.
"I am sure we will still have some violations moving forwards, but we need to do everything in our power to stop violations from happening and bring awareness to just how dangerous these violations are to our students," he said. "One decision made by a driver because they are late for work, or just impatient, can change their life and many others' lives forever, and it is just not worth that risk.
"We will be working with law enforcement to issue citations and with the county prosecutor, if necessary."
Hillenburg agreed that the high-definition cameras will improve the chances for a successful prosecution.
"As with any prosecution, the more evidence available there is a higher likelihood of a successful prosecution," she said. "The addition of high-definition cameras on our buses will supplement any eye witnesses who observed the violation."
Hammond also believes the cameras will be a significant help.
"I actually went to the Crawford County school board last year after investigating a stop-arm violation and recommended cameras at a minimum on buses that travel on the state highways," he said. "The one bus that had the camera system installed happened to be the bus that was involved in the stop-arm violation. I was able to get with (Smith) and download photos of the front of the vehicle that had a photo of the driver, as well as the rear of the vehicle with a photo of the license plate.
"It is a great piece of evidence to provide with the school bus driver's statement. The photographs made the investigation much easier and will make prosecution much easier. I think the Crawford County school board made a great decision to add camera systems to the bus fleet."
Hillenburg said she hopes motorists, after they learn about the new cameras, will be more vigilant when school is in session and less likely to pass a bus when its stop-arm extended.
"Historically when people know they are being watched, they are less likely to commit a crime," she said.
Hillenburg said that, not prosecutions, ultimately is the hope.
"Prevention is the theme, and if violations are prevented, then prosecution won't be necessary," she said.