A fatal accident in northern Indiana that claimed the lives of three children attempting to board a school bus has been a wake-up call to Hoosier school districts, including those in rural areas, which are doubling up on safety awareness.
“This was right here at our back door.among Indiana people and in areas where you wouldn’t think it would happen,” said David Henry, South Vermillion School Corp. transportation director. “That did not happen in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne or Evansville. It happened in a smaller, rural area.”
In the Fulton County fatal accident, the children were crossing a highway to board the bus, which had its stop-arm out. The driver of a pickup truck headed the opposite direction hit the children.
State law requires motorists to stop when a school bus has its stop arm extended. The law applies to all roadways, except those divided by a physical barrier or an unimproved median. On a divided roadway, only vehicles traveling in the same direction as the school bus are required to stop.
Disregarding a school bus stop arm is a Class A infraction and is punishable by a maximum fine of up to $10,000.
Stop arm violations “are a huge concern for us,” said Henry, who is new this year to South Vermillion schools. His office has on file 15 written reports of stop arm violations over a nine-week period so far this year. “There are weeks when I have received four or five stop arm violations for our school district,” he said.
He believes a majority of people are aware of the law.
“There are times they will even wave at a (bus) driver, or times when it’s like, `Please excuse me, but I have to go – I can’t wait on you,”’ he said.
But distracted driving also is a culprit.
The district does have two video cameras on the outside of its buses, one pointed forward, and one pointed the opposite direction. If the video captures a stop-arm violator’s license plate – and if possible, a photo of the driver – the district forwards a report to law enforcement.
According to Vermillion County Sheriff Mike Phelps, the sheriff’s office will follow up with violators.
‘Typically, we’ll go talk to them and get their side of the story,” he said. Tickets may be issued; if elderly drivers are involved, deputies may give a warning. “We do give a lot of warnings … and try to educate people,” he said.
The tragedy in Fulton County “woke up a lot of people, but it hasn’t stopped it (stop-arm violations),” Phelps said.
He believes there continues to be a lot of misunderstanding about who has to stop when a stop arm is activated. The only time drivers don’t have to stop is when there is a divided highway – with a barrier or median. When there is a divided highway, drivers going the opposite direction don’t have to stop.
Phelps doesn’t believe the problem is worse in rural areas, but people “may think they can get away with it more,” he said. Because of the risk to children, “I can’t fathom in my mind being in such a hurry I have to pass a school bus stop arm … because going to work is more important than the safety of kid.”
According to the Indiana Department of Education, a one-day count done each year shows that on April 24 of this year, there were 3,082 stop arm violations reported voluntarily by 201 districts. If that 3,082 is multiplied by 180 days of school, the state estimates the number of stop arm violations for the school year would be 554,760.
A year earlier, on April 25 of 2017, the number of violations reported by 145 districts for the one-day count was 2,280.
Sullivan County Sheriff Clark Cottom believes many of the violations are the result of driver inattention, which includes cellphone use and texting. “The driving public must be aware of their surroundings” and the times that buses are loading and unloading children, he said.
Law enforcement has a responsibility in this as well to educate children and teach them to “look both ways before they cross the street,” he said. Children may view the red light on the bus as a green light to cross a street, but they still need to look both ways, he said.
He personally opposes use of yellow or amber lights on a school bus to warn motorists a bus is coming to a stop because he believes they are ineffective in promoting safety. They “don’t tell the public to stop … yellow lights don’t tell the motoring public anything,” Cottom said.
He’d like to see them replaced with red flashing lights as a bus comes to a stop, which the public should understand is telling them to stop.
Cottom said his office does hope to step up education efforts in this area. “It’s heavily on my mind,” he said. He’d like to do some school bus loading and unloading drills with children. “We have enhanced our school bus patrols and enforcement,” he said.
Since the fatal accident in Fulton County, the Indiana State Police Putnamville Post has assigned some officers to follow school buses to look out for stop arm violations, said Master Trooper Matt Ames. State police work cooperatively with school districts and sheriff’s offices to enforce the law related to stop arm violations.
Ames also had some safety suggestions for students who are boarding or exiting buses. Even though it’s colder outside, if outer clothing has a hood, “They need to push the hoods back so they can see in all directions.” Also, they need to take their headphones off so they can hear if a vehicle is coming their way or hear a bus driver’s warning.
About two years ago, a student in Clay County wearing a hoody and headphones was struck by a motorist, despite a bus driver’s warnings. Fortunately, the student did not suffer severe injuries, Ames said.
He noted that some school corporations in the Putnamville district do have exterior cameras on buses, which is helpful to law enforcement in issuing tickets.
The Vigo County School Corp. is not immune, officials say. “On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s a 10,” with 10 being the worst, said Greg Gauer, assistant director of facility support and transportation.
“I would say we get them (stop arm violations) daily,” according to Nancy Weaver, VCSC transportation supervisor.
The district does not have exterior cameras, and it is more difficult for drivers to get license plate numbers, given their other responsibilities in ensuring student safety.
Still, when the transportation office reports stop arm violations to student services and law enforcement is informed, there is an “immediate response” from city police or the sheriff’s office, Gauer said.
Some of the “hot spot” areas include Clinton Street in North Terre Haute and U.S. 40 in eastern Vigo County.
The district has been looking at its elementary routes “to make sure we don’t have students crossing main roads,” Weaver said. “We are adjusting those routes,” something that actually started years ago.
They also work with children and teach them to watch for a driver’s hand motion and not to cross a street until the driver gives them the signal, Weaver said.
Gauer noted that as a result of the fatal accident in Fulton County, Vigo County School Corp. bus drivers raised $2,200 that will be sent to Tippecanoe Valley School Corp. to help cover costs associated with the death of the three children or in whatever ways the family may need.
Indiana legislators are already indicating they will push for legislation to improve school bus safety.
Republican State Rep. Jim Pressel says he was already working on legislation calling for exterior cameras on school buses, before the accident occurred in northern Indiana, according to The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, State Sen. Eric Bassler, R-Washington, hopes to advance a bill facilitating misdemeanor charges against drivers who commit stop-arm violations.
In an interview, Bassler said he’s filed the bill before. Even if passed, it wouldn’t necessarily have prevented the serious accident that killed the three children and critically injured another. “I don’t want to mislead anyone. It’s not a panacea,” he said. “What it would do is make it easier to hold people accountable” when they violate the stop-arm law.
His proposal would enable a school bus driver, an adult bus monitor or a school crossing guard to file a sworn affidavit stating someone violated the stop arm law. That would give police probable cause to issue a summons, and the individual would have to appear in court, Bassler said.
That doesn’t mean they are guilty, he said. “They would still have their day in court.”
Bassler does believe school bus safety will get increased scrutiny in the upcoming legislative session. “Sometimes it does take a tragedy to get people to take action,” he said.
He suggested some of the bills may be combined. As far as exterior cameras on buses, he said he would not want to force districts to put outside cameras on buses unless additional funding is also provided. “I don’t like unfunded mandates,” he said.
With the Oct. 30 bus tragedy still very much on everyone’s mind, South Vermillion School Corp. is working on some school bus safety initiatives, David Henry said.
In early December, it plans to conduct a “stop-look” program teaching children in grades K-5 about safety outside the school bus. “A lot of times we teach children how to be safe inside the bus, but this will focus on what do you do when you get on and off the bus,” he said.
For example, officials will emphasize that children need to watch the bus driver for a thumbs up or down on whether or not to cross the street. “There are last minute things that happen we can warn students about,” Henry said.
Also, students will be told once they cross the street, “You don’t just automatically turn around and run back” if they need to go back into the bus. “You wait on a signal from the driver if you have something that is that important you need to return to the bus.”
The transportation office, working with the middle school, will produce a video that will be shown to students – and their parents – at all three elementary schools.
The goal is to play the video during a parent night, and parents will be asked to sign a pledge not to go past a school bus with its stop arm down. The video also will be posted on the school district web site.
The district has 25 buses and 25 drivers, he said.
The unfortunate tragedy that claimed three lives “really is a moment that we have to use” to ensure no more lives are lost, Henry said.
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