INDIANAPOLIS — With a new school year in full swing, Indiana police are hoping that legislation increasing penalties for passing stopped school buses will help drivers be more educated about the rules of the road.
“I know as an agency we send educational messages out, we talk to drivers’ ed classes, we even enlist the help of the media to help people understand when it’s appropriate, or required for them to stop,” said Sgt. Ron Galaviz of the Indiana State Police. “At the end of the day, just because a motorist doesn’t know what the law is, that it’s really not an excuse.”
Legislation that passed in the 2019 session of the General Assembly increased the penalty for passing a school bus that has its red lights flashing and stop arm extended from a Class A infraction to a Class A misdemeanor, which could result in one year in jail and a fine of $5,000.
The legislation was enacted in the aftermath of an October 2018 accident near Rochester in which three siblings were killed and another boy was injured when a pickup truck hit them as they crossed a highway to board their school bus. The driver of the truck failed to stop for the bus’s extended stop arm and flashing lights.
Twin brothers Xzavier and Mason Ingle, 6, and their older sister, Alivia Stahl, 9, were all killed in the accident. A fourth child, Maverik Lowe, 11, was seriously injured.
The driver of the truck, Alyssa Shepherd, 24, is set to go to trial Oct. 15. She is charged with three counts of reckless homicide, one count of criminal recklessness resulting in serious bodily injury and one count of passing a school bus causing injury.
Under the new law, injuring someone by illegally passing a stopped bus will result in a level six felony, with a six-month to two-and-a-half year jail sentence and up to $10,000 in fines.
Should the driver be convicted of recklessly driving and killing someone, the penalty will be a level five felony with a one-to-six-year prison sentence and a fine up to $10,000. For repeat offenders, courts have the authority to suspend drivers’ licenses from 90 days to one year.
Although the penalty is much harsher than in the past, challenges remain in actually catching and charging the drivers who fail to stop for school buses loading children.
The Indiana Criminal Justice Institute has awarded $380,000 to 39 different agencies, including the Fort Wayne and Indianapolis Metropolitan police departments and the Jackson County Sheriff Department, for overtime pay for police so they can effectively patrol school bus stops.
School districts have even invested in cameras that would capture pictures of license plates of cars passing stopped buses. The camera could help law enforcement hold drivers accountable.
“I think when you are talking about not only legislation but also with the increase of technology by a lot of school corporations, cameras more specifically on the buses, now we are starting to see the combined effort along with law enforcement effort,” Galaviz said. “I can only hope that these incidents start decreasing and decreasing significantly. That’s the hope.”
The legislation also prohibits stops that require children to cross U.S. or state highways. The provision is not enforced within city or town boundaries or if there is no safer alternative.
Drivers should assume if there is a school bus, students will be present and should almost always be prepared to stop, but use caution.
“I think it happens more than we realize,” Galaviz said of drivers failing to stopped for school buses loading children. “It seems like every day you see on TV, YouTube, or social media, somebody recording an incident somewhere, whether it is here in Indiana or somewhere nationally, a near miss with a school bus, or somebody isn’t paying attention or just recklessness.”