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Motorists flout the law

A Fayette County School Corporation bus driven by Cory France makes a stop - with the stop arm out – on Holly Street Friday afternoon.

By KATE THURSTON - kthurston@newsexaminer.com

Schools are seeing an increase in the number of drivers illegally passing school buses that are stopped to load or unload students, despite state law that authorizing a fine of up to $10,000 for ignoring a stop arm.

When school buses are stopped to load or unload, an arm with flashing lights and a stop sign on it is automatically extended on the driver side. Lights flash red on the front and rear of the bus. On roads with no barrier in the middle, motorists going both directions are required to stop. On divided highways, only motorists behind the bus must stop.

Indiana has seen its share of school bus tragedy and student death. On Oct. 30, three members of one northern Indiana family died and their brother suffered critical injuries when the four of them were hit by a pickup that ignored a stopped bus. The pickup driver is awaiting trial.

Fayette County School Corporation operates 48 school buses. On any given day, they average about 2,400 students riding to and from school.

When motorists ignore the stop arm, not only are they at risk of harming children, they can be fined $10,000.

“When a driver disregards the stop arm, we ask (bus) drivers to try to get the make and model of the vehicle and the license plate number. This is not always easy when visibility is poor or the vehicle is moving at a fast speed,” FCSC Superintendent Scott Collins said. “If the driver can get this information, it will be reported to our transportation department and then the police are contacted.”

Fayette County Sheriff Joey Laughlin said motorists who don’t stop for a stop arm will be issued a citation for a class A infraction, which can lead to a $10,000 fine.

Vehicles passing stopped school buses with stop arms extended is a not new situation, Ron Chew of Straughn, Indiana State School Bus Drivers Association president, said. “I think with the tragic accident that occurred in Fulton County several weeks ago, more emphasis is now being placed on the problem, and it is sad to say that it took three children losing their lives for this to occur. I am hoping that the legislature will pass some aggressive legislation dealing with this problem and we can get some continuity among the counties in writing tickets for this offense.” 

Annually, the Indiana Department of Education asks school corporations to participate in a voluntary one-day count of drivers who illegally pass buses. On that day, bus drivers count any vehicle that passes either to the front or rear of the bus when the stop arm is out. That number is reported to the district, which reports them to the state.

A survey by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation services last April reported that 3,077 vehicles illegally passed school buses in Indiana that day. Most of the illegal passing happened in morning or afternoon.

If that’s an average day’s count, then more than 500,000 drivers illegally pass stopped school buses during a school year.

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services tracks results for the country. Schools districts in 38 states participated in the latest count, recording more than 108,000 drivers passing buses on one day. That’s the potential for more than 15 million incidents of drivers passing stopped buses in a school year.

Fayette County School Corporation is looking into more ways to prevent accidents. One method some schools are using is placing video cameras on stop arms.

“I have asked our new transportation director, Darrell Drew, to explore the options with cameras on stop arms. One price from a company that has installed them on another district, placed the cost of outfitting each bus at over $1,000,” Collins said.

The video technology allows school districts to capture illegal passing events, vehicle makes, models, license plate numbers and images of offending drivers. These are all elements needed to seek stop-arm violation prosecution.

The district is seeking more information about the video option, including how well they work in low-visibility conditions, such as fog, Collins said.

Brighter flashers – LED strobes – are on newer stop arms, Collins said. The school district is retrofitting older arms with the same kind of light.

Additionally, he said, “Our buses are equipped with school bus crossing arms, which extend in front of the bus when loading or unloading children to keep them from crossing directly in front of the bus so that they are visible to the driver at all times.” 

FCSC bus drivers are very conscious of their surroundings when picking up and dropping off children, he said.

“We recently evaluated all of our routes with input from each bus driver looking at ways we can minimize stops where kids need to cross the road. While highways, such as St. Rd. 1 and 44, are key focus areas to arrange routes so children do not cross the highways to get on or off buses, we also look at our city streets, especially ones where there is a lot of traffic,” he said. 

FCSC also asks for help from community members who see someone pass a stopped school bus.

“If they observe a vehicle breaking the law and not stopping for a bus when its stop arm is extended and the red lights are flashing, we ask they please report it,” Collins said. “Those who witness the crime can always report the incident with vehicle details to the police or to our transportation department.”

Chew, the School Bus Driver association president, said drivers always need to be attentive when meeting or following a school bus.

He said, “It seems everyone is in such a hurry and that in itself creates major problems.”