With the start of a new school year only days away, the roads of northeast Indiana will be dotted with bright yellow school buses during the morning and afternoon commute.
With that, area transportation directors want to remind drivers to become vigilant while on the roadways and never pass a bus while lights are flashing and stop-arms are extended.
Alan Butler, DeKalb Eastern School District maintenance supervisor, said one person running a stop-arm is too many, especially at the beginning of the school year.
Despite yearly reminders, area transportation directors say they still see drivers run stop-arms each year.
“Drivers running stop-arms is a concern and a problem we won’t ever remedy 100%,” said Renee Dawson, director of transportation at the DeKalb Central school district.
East Noble School Corporation Director of Transportation Josh Buhro said motorists running stop-arms can be a weekly occurrence and “a cause for great concern.”
In 2019, Gov. Eric Holcomb increased penalties for violating a stop-arm from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor. Penalties were also raised from a Class A misdemeanor to a Level 6 felony for a stop-arm runner if the action results in injury, and to a Level 5 felony if the action results in death.
The court may also suspend the motorist’s driving privileges for 90 days for a first offense, or, if the motorist has committed at least one previous school bus passing offense, for one year. Additionally, the court can now charge a motorist convicted of a stop-arm violation a “safe schools” fee between $200 and $1,000.
On Thursday Gov. Holcomb announced that area police agencies would be out in force this back-to-school season as part of the state’s Stop Arm Violation Enforcement program.
“We’re entering back-to-school season in Indiana, which means motorists need to watch for buses and drive cautiously at all times,” Holcomb said. “School buses remain the safest mode of transportation for students, and we need everyone’s help to keep it that way.”
Smile, you’re on camera
In an effort to catch motorists who run stop-arms, many of the larger districts have invested in video systems on the outside of the buses that record vehicles that violate the law. Some districts in the four-county area have outfitted a portion of their buses with this equipment.
All DeKalb Central and East Noble school corporation buses are equipped with a video system.
Dawson said the system captures license plates and car descriptions, giving police officers and prosecutors the information they need to ticket and prosecute violators.
With tickets being issued, DeKalb Central has seen a reduction in violators.
“The more that we spread the knowledge to the drivers, the bigger reduction we will see going forward,” Dawson said.
East Noble equipped its entire fleet with video systems in 2016.
Buhro said his district has worked closely with local, county and state law enforcement agencies to address the issue of vehicles disregarding student safety during pickups and drop-offs.
Signals in use
West Noble Director of Transportation Officer Brandon Chordas said although his district doesn’t have exterior video systems, he has set up hand signals drivers can use to tell students when it is safe to cross in front of a bus.
Despite having minimal stops where students have to cross in front of a bus, there are still those occasions when it is necessary. In those cases, students look to the drivers for assistance. From inside the bus, drivers will motion to students when all cars are stopped and it is safe to cross in front of the bus.
“This is something you want the students to understand from day one,” Chordas said.
Area school districts reevaluate their routes and stops each year, emphasizing the importance of curbside pickups. Many of the directors say they try to pick up students curbside as much as possible.
Indiana Code 9-21-20 mandates door-side pickups on any state or federal highway not located within city or town boundaries.
Buhro said there are many places in his district where they are restricting students crossing, based on visibility and locations of student stops. However, there are still many locations throughout the district, especially on rural, county roads, where students cross in front of the bus for pickup and drop-off.
As a director and student resource officer, Chordas also monitors bus traffic closely in the morning and afternoon. If a violation occurs, Chordas, who is also an officer with the Ligonier Police Department, can radio local officers who can track down violators instantly.
Along with an emphasis on stop-arm violations, area districts take a wide array of other precautions to keep children safe on and off the bus.
The state requires all districts to evaluate each route on a yearly basis to see where changes can be made to keep children safe.
Dawson said her district goes above and beyond what the state statute is when it looks at the safety of its routes.
“We don’t have stops that compromise the safety of students,” she said.
When it comes to safety on board, DeKalb Central’s entire fleet of buses has seatbelts, which must be worn by students riding the bus.
Dawson believes that her district is the only district in the state where every bus has stop-arm cameras and seatbelts.
Technology allows 360-degree view
At DeKalb Eastern, several of the district’s newest buses are equipped with technology, allowing drivers a 360-degree view around the bus.
Butler said this is beneficial when the bus is stopped at pickup and drop-off locations, whether it be on routes or at the school in the morning and afternoon. The cameras allow drivers to spot young children who may not always be the easiest to see when maneuvering their way around a bus.
The 360-degree view also helps drivers maneuver around tight corners.
All in all, the area transportation directors agree that education of not only students, but also drivers, is the best way to prevent accidents.
Too much at stake
In the spring, officers who participated in the last enforcement campaign issued more than 5,600 citations and 1,700 warnings. Of the citations, 251 were for stop-arm violations, 309 for texting while driving and an alarming amount, nearly 1,900, were for speeding.
“Speeding around a bus or ignoring its stop-arm is not only illegal, it’s reckless,” said Devon McDonald, executive director of Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. “It puts everyone on the oad at risk, including children, and has to stop – too much is at stake.”