FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Ask any school bus driver his or her top concern and you’ll likely hear the same answer: a vehicle hitting a child getting on or off the bus.
Reports submitted by bus drivers around Indiana show how real the threat is. According to the Indiana Department of Education, bus drivers reported almost half a million vehicles ignoring their stop arms in 2014 alone.
In fact, stop arm violations happen virtually every day around every school bus throughout Indiana. And unless more drivers begin paying attention, leaders warn, it’s only a matter of time before more kids get hit.
Child hit trying to get to school
Indiana has seen its share of tragedy.
WISH-TV sister station WANE News reported that the most recent incident happened in the small town of Liberty, just south of Richmond, Indiana. February of 2013, a bus had stopped to pick up 8-year-old Jaret Philbeck. The bus apparently had its yellow flashing lights on and was almost stopped when the 3rd grader began crossing the street.
A driver, who was said to be plugging in her phone charger, hit and killed the young boy.
“It happens every day”
Bobby Lucas has driven a bus for Fort Wayne Community Schools for six years. He transports kids to and from North Side High School and Nebraska Elementary School.
Lucas said his route is notorious for drivers ignoring his stop arms and has witnessed some close calls.
“On Anthony Street, it wasn’t my bus but I was behind the bus that was letting students off…She was laying on the horn, but 10 cars went past her stop sign,” Lucas said. “It’s kind of heart-stopping because this could mean a child’s life.”
So 15 Finds Out followed Lucas’ route one afternoon to witness the issue firsthand. First try, at least two vehicles drove past his stop arms soon after the arms came out.
“80 percent of them are on cell phones and they’re not paying attention. I’ve actually blown my horn when people are going by and they look at me with their cell phone still up to their ear,” Lucas said. “They don’t get it.”
It was a similar story in the East Allen County Schools District. The first time 15 Finds Out attached a camera on the side of an EACS bus, it caught someone driving around the back of the bus with the stop arms still out.
According to the Indiana Department of Education, this was not a fluke. On April 29, 2014, 197 FWCS buses reported 198 stop arm violations.
See the above map for every northeast Indiana school district’s stop arm violations on April 29.
Frank Jackson, FWCS Director of Transportation, is well aware of the problem.
“Actually, the 198 is probably a low count because that doesn’t encompass all of the stop arm violations throughout the day. Those are the drivers that participated in the count and actually submitted that information,” Jackson said. “If we actually tallied probably all of the violations that occurred on a daily basis, we’d probably be in the 400 range.”
Jackson continued, “That is one of our biggest concerns in Fort Wayne Community Schools.”
When to stop for a school bus
As a bus is preparing to pick up or drop off students, it will initiate its yellow flashing lights. That’s a signal for nearby drivers to prepare to stop.
The bus driver will then pull out the stop arms and the flashing lights will turn red. Whether a vehicle is traveling behind the bus or the opposite direction, it has to stop no matter how many lanes are on the road.
But there is an exception. If a driver is traveling the opposite direction and there’s a median or some sort of barrier between the vehicle and the bus, the driver should use caution. But the vehicle is not required to stop.
Stop arm violation sting
It’s an issue Fort Wayne police enforce as much as possible. Officers frequently set up near the intersection of Clinton Street and Rudisill Boulevard: a four lane road notorious for stop arm violators.
15 Finds Out joined FWPD on a sting one morning. Sure enough, on the first try, officers pulled over two drivers who blatantly ran a bus’ stop arms.
One driver apparently told officers he did not violate the law. The other said he simply did not see the big yellow school bus with flashing red lights.
“I said ‘You didn’t see that big yellow school bus with the arm out?’ And he was like, ‘No I didn’t see it,’” explained Gregory Addison, patrol officer in the southeast division. “He wanted me to be sympathetic towards him but my sympathy goes toward the kids.”
It’s a frustration police and Lucas share toward a problem all agree must be stopped.
“I think about that every day, that it’s just a matter of time before someone hits a child leaving or getting on a school bus,” Lucas said.