NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: School bus bill should be approved

Legislation that would add safety requirements to school buses and stiffen the penalties for illegally passing a school bus in Indiana should be approved.

Senate Bill 2, the so-called MAX Strong bill, would increase the penalty for illegally passing a school bus from a Class A infraction to a Class C misdemeanor with punishments that include a 90-day suspension of a driver’s license. The bill also would require school buses to include certain safety equipment and that drivers extend the bus’s stop arm and set flashing lights when the bus is stopped.

The bill was approved in the state Senate in February. The Indiana House also approved the bill but only after adding amendments eliminating the requirement that cameras be installed on school bus stop arms and making the sentences for violators recommendations rather than mandates. The revised bill is now back in the Senate for review.

The bill is named the MAX Strong bill after the foundation that was created after three children – 6-year-old twins Mason Ingle and Xzavier Ingle and their sister, Alvia Stahl, 9 – were killed last October when they were struck by a pickup while crossing Indiana 25 to board a school bus near Rochester. A fourth child, an 11-year-old boy, also was injured in the accident. The bus was stopped with its stop arm extended and lights flashing when the accident occurred. The driver of the pickup, Alyssa Shepherd, 24, faces charges of reckless homicide and criminal recklessness.

But the Rochester accident is simply the worst-case scenario resulting from a problem that is bigger then most realize.

In March, the Fort Wayne Police Department spent three weeks focusing on school bus traffic enforcement. That effort produced 60 tickets in which drivers were cited for illegally passing a school bus. The Allen County Sheriff’s Department issued two such tickets during the time period. Krista Stockman, spokesperson for Fort Wayne Community Schools, said the school district is working with other school districts in the county to try to raise awareness about the issue of stopping for school buses.

In Indiana, state law requires drivers to stop when school buses are picking up or dropping off children. In most cases, vehicles traveling in both directions must stop. On multi-lane roads with barriers between lanes, only vehicles behind the bus must stop. All 50 states have similar laws in place. Yet there is a clear lack of education and awareness of what the law requires.

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services conducts a nationwide survey every year in which bus drivers are asked to track illegal passing incidents. The 2018 survey showed 83,944 vehicles passed buses illegally in one day during the 2017-18 school year. In Indiana, 7,600 school bus drivers counted 3,077 illegal passing incidents.

Simply put, the numbers – in Fort Wayne, in Indiana and across the nation – are alarmingly high when it comes to vehicles passing stopped school buses. Senate Bill 2 won’t fix things overnight. But it’s an important and necessary step in getting drivers’ to pay attention before another tragedy occurs. Senate Bill 2 should be approved.