TIPPECANOE COUNTY, Ind. (WLFI) - About 125 buses are preparing to get back on the road as Tippecanoe County School Corporation starts on Tuesday, August 13th. This is the first academic year where the school bus stopping law is in effect.
This law was made after three Fulton County children were hit by a driver as they tried to board their school bus last November.
"There's nothing more important than what's on those buses," said Greg Haltom, TSC Transportation Director. TSC put black ribbons on its buses in November in honor of the tragedy.
Gary Killion has been driving buses since the early 90's. He took News 18 on a ride-along on Thursday. He said seeing cars pass his school bus when they shouldn't happens too often.
"Every day," he said. "Every day when school is in session, we have a stop arm violation."
He remembers seeing a slight change in driving behavior after the crash in November.
"There was maybe a month or two where it was still happening, but maybe not at the frequency," he said "Then it started picking back up and it was almost as if it didn't happen."
Haltom said they are using these extra days of summer to get their drivers ready.
"We stress safe stop procedures with our drivers every time we gather in mass," he said. "We did that again at our orientation on Wednesday."
These procedures include drivers knowing when to turn on their lights, putting the parking brake on when stopped and checking mirrors before physically signaling kids to enter the bus. Haltom said parents should have conversations with their kids about paying attention to bus driver commands. TSC also made some important route changes that comply with the new law.
"Our routing department went back into our routes and ensured that all of our students that are located on U.S. and state highways are getting on door-side, so we don't have anyone crossing the road," he said.
However, sometimes even loading door-side isn't enough to stop drivers passing dangerously and illegally. TSC has video from May 2019 of a car passing a school bus on the door-side just seconds after three kids boarded their bus. Killion said he had a similar experience happen a few years ago on State Road 26.
"I had a van that didn't even try to stop, going 40 to 50, that passed me on my right side as (the student) started to unload," he said. "I'm still rattled about it"
"He was able to grab the student by the backpack before she stepped off the bus," said Haltom. "Otherwise that almost certainly would have been a fatality."
Haltom said it's especially hard for bus drivers to predict a door-side passing. That's because the car comes up behind the bus, out of view of the mirrors, before passing.
He said that TSC buses do not have cameras to catch passing cars. Many of the bus drivers try to note as much of the descriptive information down as they can, such as the car color, model, license plate number and driver description. However, he said some of the drivers have turned to the dozens of extra eyes on board to help.
"The drivers treat it as a game, even though it's sad that they have to do this," he said. "They have kids absolutely eagle-eyeing these cars. If the driver yells out 'stop arm,' there are kids saying it's a blue this with this license plate and the person that was driving had brown hair. They give a tremendous amount of detail."
The new law says that a court may suspend the driving privileges of an individual who commits a stop arm infraction for 90 days, or for one year if it's a second offense. It also increases the penalty to a Class A misdemeanor for someone who recklessly passes a school bus when its stop arm is extended. Now it's a Level 6 felony for an individual who recklessly passes a school bus when its stop arm is extended if the action results in injury, and to a Level 5 felony if it results in death. This bill was authored by State Senator Randall Head from District 18.
Haltom said he is hopeful for the new law, but only time will tell. His message to drivers?
"There is nothing that important, nothing is that much of an emergency that doesn't require an emergency vehicle for you to need to run a stop arm," he said.