NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Extended stop arms for school buses an idea worth testing

When a 9-year-old girl and her 6-year-old twin brothers were killed and a fourth student injured when struck by a pickup while crossing Indiana 25 near Rochester to board a bus for school in October, the tragedy focused Indiana’s attention on the lingering problem of drivers passing stopped school buses.

Fort Wayne and Allen County police responded to the widespread problem by issuing 64 citations over a three-week period of heightened enforcement in March.

News-Sentinel.com praised the Indiana Legislature for passing Senate Bill 2 in the spring, which raises penalties for violators who ignore school bus stop arms and gives schools the option to conduct referendums for funding to pay for stop-arm cameras. It requires school districts to minimize bus stops that make children cross highways in high-speed areas, and it will potentially increase public awareness regarding Indiana’s school bus laws.

Today we also praise Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill for opening the door for the state’s school districts to add another option in their quest for safety: extended school bus stop arms. Hill announced his official opinion Monday that no federal or state laws prohibit the use of the extended stop arms and that a state board that sets safety standards for Indiana’s school buses may at some time authorize the use of the devices that extend into oncoming traffic.

Hill’s opinion was the result of a request by Michael Mentzel, chairman of the Indiana State School Bus Committee, and Michael LaRocco, director of transportation at the Indiana Department of Education.

Such opinions reportedly don’t have the force of law but are generally respected by courts. We think it behooves school officials throughout the state to seriously consider Hill’s recommendation if such an adjustment to school buses would prove effective.

Extended stop arms are already used in other states. Common stop arms extend about 18 inches from the side of a school bus with a stop sign at the end. The extended stop arms, however, are between 4.5-6.5 feet, long enough to block vehicles from illegally passing the bus.

Perhaps the tragedy in Rochester would not have been prevented by such a stop arm if the driver of the pickup had her eyes off the road. Distracted driving due to such things as texting may result in tragedies, no matter what precautions are taken to protect students getting on and off stopped school buses. But it’s clear that even drivers well aware that buses’ stop arms are extended and lights are flashing deliberately pass them anyway.

According to Bus Safety Solutions, Inc., the creator of the patented Extended Stop Arm, there are 14 million stop arm violations in the U.S. every year.

A survey of statistics from 108,623 school buses in 38 states last year, conducted by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, found that 83,944 vehicles illegally passed school buses on one day during the 2017-18 school year. In Indiana, 7,596 bus drivers reported 3,077 such violations.

Could extended stop arms, in tandem with the Legislature’s new law, save lives?

Fort Wayne Community Schools Public Information Officer Krista Stockman told us, “We’re aware of the device, but it’s not something we’re going to be adding to our buses at this time.”

That may be the case for most school districts across the state right now, since the issue has been raised so recently. But we would encourage school officials to examine the possibility carefully in the near future to see if effectiveness and cost would make it an idea worth trying.

Hill wrote that the devices nationally have reduced the number of illegally passing vehicles from 50-100 percent, depending on the district.

The Albemarle County Public Schools transportation department in Virginia reported that its pilot program testing the use of extended stop arms in May and June last year found the incidence of motorists illegally passing a stopped school bus declined by 89 percent.

One company selling extended stop arms lists retrofit packages from $300-$600, not including installation, which they say is relatively simple.

News-Sentinel.com suggests that at least one of our county districts conduct their own pilot program to test whether the numbers of violations locally decrease with the use of the extended stop arm devices. It’s worth the cost and effort if it can save lives.


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