By Abrahm Hurt
INDIANAPOLIS– Indiana children are heading back to school with a new state law in place to try to keep them safe as they board buses.
The law was passed this year by the Indiana General Assembly in response to the deaths of three children in 2018 as they prepared to get on their school bus in Fulton County.
Alivia Stahl and her twin brothers, Xzavier and Mason Ingle, were hit and killed last October. Alyssa Shepherd, who was on her way to work, failed to stop for a school bus that had its lights flashing and stop arm extended, striking the children as they crossed the street.
Shepherd is scheduled to face trial in October on three counts of reckless homicide, one count of criminal recklessness and one count of passing a school bus with its safety arm extended.
Indiana State Police Sgt. Tony Slocum, public information officer for the Peru district which contains Fulton County, sent out a Tweet recently warning motorists to pay attention.
File photo of a school bus. Photo by Zoie Richey, TheStatehouseFile.com
“Be ready in the early morning and early afternoon hours to stop for school buses. Watch for children walking to and from school/waiting on buses,” Slocum tweeted. “Officers will have zero tolerance for those who disregard a bus stop arm or speed in school zones.”
Senate Enrolled Act 2, authored by Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport,makes running a school bus stop sign a Class A misdemeanor, up from a Class B misdemeanor. If the action results in injury, it is a Level 6 felony, and if the action results in a death it is a Level 5 felony, which carries a penalty of one to six years in prison.
The new law also adds school bus safety to the topics required on a learner’s permit or driver’s license exam, requires school buses to have reflective tape in certain areas and school buses must operate with daytime running lights.
Others changes include that if a school bus is operated on a U.S. or state route, outside city or town boundaries, the bus driver may not load or unload a student at a location that requires the student to cross a roadway. The only exception is if there are no other safe alternatives.
The law also says school bus drivers should load or unload students as close as possible to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.
The law mandates school corporations, charter schools and accredited nonpublic schools that provide transportation to annually review their school bus routes and safety policies.
Rep. Terry Goodin, an Austin Democrat who also is superintendent of Crothersville Community Schools, said the school corporation had to make some changes to their bus routes but that they were already complying with the additional safety codes.
“We changed up some routes to make sure we were picking up kids on certain sides of the road and on the door side of the bus,” he said.
Goodin said their bus drivers are professional who do a “superb job” and are “always on the spot.”
“They treat those kids that get on that bus just like they would their own,” he said. “They’re conscious about the safety procedures and habits.”
Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, said the department has spoken to most districts and, so far, all have said they are able to comply.
He said IDOE wrote and distributed guidance for the districts based on the new law.
“We believe it should help,” Baker said, “but also understand some of the new law, such as where buses can load and unload students, only applies to state and U.S. highways. There are other locations where students can cross.”
State law had already required motorists to stop, rather than simply proceed with caution, when a school bus is picking up or dropping off children, as signaled by its lights and the stop arm extended.
But according to the Indiana State Police website, drivers do not have to stop if the road is divided by a physical barrier such as a guardrail, concrete barrier or grass median. On a divided roadway, only vehicles traveling in the same direction as the school bus are required to stop.
Indiana law requires the State Police Department to perform an annual inspection on all buses and a semi-annual inspection on buses at least 12 years old to ensure they are safe to operate. The State Police website says these inspections help provide safe modes of transportation, prevent crashes and injuries and lower the cost of operation and maintenance for school systems.
“The biggest thing that can be done to improve safety at bus stops is to drive home to motorists they have to be more attentive while driving,” Baker said. “While their vehicle may be a convenience to them, it quickly can become a two-ton weapon if they are not paying attention.”
Goodin said he would like the General Assembly to stay involved in school bus safety.
“What I would like to see the legislature do is to be a little more proactive and try to assume or try to figure out where problems might be to fix beforehand,” he said. “But, unfortunately a lot of the scenarios happen, and that’s what leads to the safety side.”
Abrahm Hurt is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalists.