As the bus opens its doors to let a child on or off, both the driver and students know they can’t expect traffic to stop to let a child cross the street.
At least a few times a week — and sometimes more — drivers will ignore the flashing lights and bright red stop sign telling them to stop when the school bus stops.
The close calls are terrifying.
“We have not had any injuries since I’ve been here. We have had scary situations, where if we had been 6 more feet, it would have been a bad day for all of us,” Greenwood transportation director Mike Hildebrand said.
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But that’s also why drivers and even the students on the bus are trained to pay close attention to traffic when loading and unloading and to get a description of the vehicles that don’t stop when they should.
Students know to call out the license plate numbers of the vehicles that don’t stop, and then police can use that information to catch and ticket the driver, Hildebrand said.
Police and school officials take the offense, called a stop arm violation, seriously. And drivers face a ticket and a fine if they are caught.
Drivers break the rules more often than you would think. The state does a one-day count, and in April, 227 school districts reported nearly 3,000 drivers ignored their flashing lights and stop signs and passed the buses anyway, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
In Greenwood, bus drivers see it happen two to three times a week, and the worst spots are along the main thoroughfares, including U.S. 31, Smith Valley Road and Main Street, Hildebrand said.
And in Franklin, it’s happening almost daily, all over the city, including on neighborhood streets, Franklin schools transportation director Doug Dickinson said.
Local police departments say the number of tickets they write fluctuates based on how often they or a bus driver see someone break the rules. Franklin police had nine violations reported last school year and 21 the previous school year.
So far this year, at least five have been reported, according to the Franklin Police Department.
Whether the driver will get a ticket depends on the information reported to police.
If an officer sees a driver violate the law, then he or she can write that person a ticket. But otherwise, officers have to get all the information they can from the bus, track down the driver and prove they violated the law, Franklin Police deputy chief Chris Tennell said. And that could require the bus driver to testify in court if the driver wants to argue the ticket, he said.
But if police can’t find the driver or can’t prove who was driving when the violation happened, there isn’t much that can be done, Sheriff Doug Cox said.
And drivers can’t always take down the vehicle’s information, since they also have to focus on keeping that child safe, Dickinson said.
“There are a lot that don’t get reported just because we don’t get all the information,” he said.
The goal is not to catch drivers but instead to educate them on why they should stop, police and transportation officials said.
“Clearly this is a safety issue, and the stop arms and the lights on the school bus are there to alert drivers that kids are either exiting or approaching the bus,” Tennell said.
“It’s intended to protect the kids.”
Hildebrand wants other drivers to remember who is getting on and off those buses everyday.
“We transport some of the most precious cargo in the world,” he said.
So when a driver is behind a bus when the lights start flashing, he wants them to think twice about trying to pass them before the red lights go on because that could be the moment a child rushes across the street, Hildebrand said.
And drivers do tell the children to wait until they motion for them to cross the street so they can also check to make sure it is safe for them to cross, but just one time, that may not happen, he said.
“All it takes is that one time,” Hildebrand said.
Dickinson said he would like to see a public safety campaign, like the ones done for drivers to be aware of motorcycle riders. Some people think it is OK to pass the bus because they are pulling off to the side of the road, but that is not what the law says, he said.
And others are just in too much of a hurry, he said.
“These are someone’s kids, and you need to pay attention,” Dickinson said.
Here is a look at the number of violations a state study showed in recent years:
School districts reporting: 227
One-day violations (measured April 26): 2,954
School year total violations: 531,720
School districts reporting: 204
One-day violations (measured April 28): 3,008
School year total violations: 541,440
School districts reporting: 189
One-day violations (measured April 29): 2,577
School year total violations: 463,860
SOURCE: Indiana Department of Education report