Stop arm violations put students’ lives on the line

When 6-year-old twins, Xzavier and Mason Ingle, and their 9-year-old sister Alivia Stahl were killed this last October as they attempted to cross Indiana SR 25 to board their school bus, it drew national attention to an issue that has received little notice outside of those who work in school transportation departments.

The bus driver who picked up these children, along with 11-year-old Maverik Lowe who was also struck and severely injured by the pick-up truck that killed his school mates, was reportedly acting within the assigned procedures.

The bus was stopped.

The red warning lights both on the front and the rear of the big yellow school bus were flashing.

The stop arm was extended.

The red lights on the stop arm were also flashing, and the word STOP was also lit.

Although it was 7:30 a.m., and daylight had yet to announce itself, the flashing bus lights would be visible to any motorist far enough away so that any appropriate stopping distance would be attainable.

Unfortunately, the driver of the pick-up truck was either so focused on something other than the bus, or she simply chose to ignore it, and the lives of three young students who attended Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation tragically came to an end on that highway.

Currently, the driver is charged with three counts of reckless homicide, as well as a traffic violation. To those who work in school transportation, as well as any street cop, this is known as a “stop arm violation.”

I should know.

For 17 years I was the supervisor of safety and student management for a local school district’s transportation department. Although we never lost a child due to a stop arm violator during my tenure, there were still too many close calls.

During a recent news report, a spokesman for Fort Wayne Community Schools stated that FWCS school bus drivers had reported approximately 150 stop arm violations thus far in the school year. That may sound like a lot to any parent concerned for their child’s safety, but I can assure you that number is low for a variety of reasons.

Often times, drivers may miss the derelict who disregards an extended stop arm because they are concentrating on the students already boarding the bus. Other incidents might occur when one driver intentionally decides to run the stop arm, then other drivers take it as permission to do the same.

Special needs bus drivers often have the stop arm out for a prolonged period of time, due to loading of a wheelchair student. At these times, their backs are turned to the traffic side of the bus, so they are unable to see the impatient driver who’s running late to work.

There are approaches designed to increase the safety of those students boarding the bus. Many drivers train students, especially those who must cross a street to board the bus, to wait until the driver has properly checked their mirrors to see that all traffic is stopped, making sure that it is safe before waving their students to cross the street.

There are other precautions that rest with parents, such as making sure a responsible adult escorts elementary-aged students to the bus stop daily, as well as being there when the bus drops off at the end of the day. Parents should also make sure children are at the bus stop at least five minutes before the bus’s scheduled arrival, and teach children to never cross behind the bus.

School administrators can take the time to map out bus stops — especially those assigned along highways or busy intersections — to make sure students can be picked up on boarding-side whenever possible, eliminating the need to cross the street.

Law enforcement and the courts can also do their part. Instead of an on-duty officer who simply parks while waiting for a call from dispatch, the officer might make the effort to learn the pickup times and locations of bus stops, and position themselves for stand-by there. Not only could they react if, and when, they witness a belligerent driver who puts our community’s children in danger, but the presence of a police car is a great deterrent. As far as the courts go, based on the potential for disaster, leniency for those who disregard a bus stop arm should not come into play. The word will eventually get out to anyone who believes the law doesn’t apply to them, or their schedule is more important than a child’s life.

There are plenty of distractions that plague drivers who hit the roads when our schools are in session. From daydreaming to alcohol, from marijuana to cell phones, it all takes away from focusing on the road ahead. By avoiding those distractions, you might just avoid the distraction of doing jail time.