Few Iowa Drivers Punished for Passing Stopped School Buses

Fewer drivers are receiving the tough penalties Iowa lawmakers approved in 2012 for illegally passing school buses when they are stopped.

The Des Moines Register reports that the number of people charged with violating the school bus law has declined, and the law’s tough penalties may make prosecutors more willing to accept lesser charges.

The law calls for a 30-day license suspension for a first offense, costly fines and expensive high-risk insurance. The measure was prompted by the 2011 death of 7-year-old Kadyn Halverson, who was hit by a vehicle as she crossed a rural road to board a school bus.

school bus safetyThe number of drivers charged with illegally passing a bus fell to 895 in 2015 from 1,030 in 2012. And the number of drivers who had their license suspended fell to 582 last year from 977 in 2012.

Bus drivers say distracted driving appears to be part of the problem.

“I’ve seen a lot of people on their cellphones, texting, putting makeup on. I’ve seen one guy brushing his teeth, another shaving. They’re not paying attention,” said bus driver Marilyn Hawkins of Des Moines Schools. “I think it’s gotten worse.”

Authorities say part of the challenge in getting convictions is that bus drivers are often the only witness, and since they are not trained observers it can be difficult to prove. Plus, not every bus is equipped with a video camera that could provide additional evidence.

“It’s certainly not anything that a law enforcement officer or prosecutor takes lightly,” said Peter Grady, assistant attorney general with the Iowa Department of Justice. “But we can’t convict unless we have evidence.”

For instance, Dubuque County convicts only about 23 percent of the drivers charged with stop-arm violations – that’s one of the lowest rates in the state.

Assistant County Attorney Ry Meyer said the office regularly reaches plea agreements that allow motorists to complete a distracted driving course and community service. Meyer defended the deals.

“We’re not going soft on them,” he said, adding that in some cases he has pursued convictions. “Sometimes violations are very dangerous, and you can’t let them go.”