Ohio may toughen penalties for breaking school bus laws

JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF ORIGINAL CUTLINE: Students board a school bus outside Ruskin Elementary school in Dayton as teachers and school staff monitor the area.
JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF ORIGINAL CUTLINE: Students board a school bus outside Ruskin Elementary school in Dayton as teachers and school staff monitor the area.

A traffic ticket for failing to stop for a school bus that is picking up or dropping off students already carries a mandatory court appearance in Ohio. But state lawmakers are considering adding penalties: pay an additional fine or take a distracted driving course.

The Ohio House voted 91-2 last week for a bill that would add failure to stop for a school bus to the distracted driving law. Citations under that law give motorists a choice of paying a fine or taking a course. Republican state Reps. Bill Dean of Xenia and Niraj Antani of Miamisburg were the sole no votes.

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Antani said the additional $100 fine for distracted driving isn’t high enough to change driver behavior and he favors stricter penalties.

The vote for House Bill 119 came during National School Bus Safety Week.

The 8th annual survey by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services found: 108,623 survey participating drivers reported 83,944 vehicles passed their buses illegally on a single day.

Sixty-percent of Ohio’s students ride yellow school buses each day and nearly 15,000 buses are on Ohio roads, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Nationwide, more than 25 million children ride 485,000 school buses daily. Between 2007 and 2016, there were 1,282 fatalities related to school transportation — 70 percent of the victims occupied other vehicles, according to the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration.

State law requires drivers follow a safety checklist at each stop, including setting off the flashing yellow and then flashing red lights, setting the parking brake, shifting into neutral gear and more.

Most traffic tickets can be paid by mail or in person but Ohio requires a court appearance for failing to stop for school buses, running from the cops, drag racing, leaving the scene of an accident, drunken or drugged driving and some other serious traffic offenses.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that states are considering improving school bus safety by adding seat belts to protect passengers in rollover or side-impact crashes and by adding cameras to stop arms to catch drivers who illegally pass the bus.

Eight states require some manner of seat belts on school buses and 15 states permit the use of stop arm cameras, according to NCSL. Ohio lawmakers are currently considering HB83 to allow for the use of bus cameras to identify drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses.

Local districts using video to crack down on drivers

Since Sept. 22, 2017, Mad River Local Schools transportation department has filed 75 incidents, on video, of drivers speeding past stopped school buses to the Riverside Police Department, according to Brent Speas, director of transportation for Mad River Local Schools. The department has a mechanism on all its buses that begins recording a vehicle as soon as it starts speeding past while the bus is stopped for boarding kids.

“It still shocks me when they do it, even though it happens on a weekly basis,” said Barb Eddy, a Mad River bus driver of almost 30 years. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a main road or little side street, I’ve had more people run on those little 25 mph side streets than the big roads. … The cameras on the outside help. It’s hard to get the license plate without it. Sometimes you can follow them and get them at the next light, get their information, but I don’t know. A lot of them just don’t care. Some are distracted. I lay on my horn every time they do it. Some of them have flipped me off.”

A few weeks ago, Eddy said there was a close call with a group of middle-schoolers at a busy stop.

“Probably about a dozen kids and they all cross,” Eddy said. “They all exited the bus and they were waiting for my hand signal, this was a little side street. I always wait for the car to stop so I was awaiting and it just blew past my stop sign. The kids were already on the outside of the bus waiting. The kids that were on the bus were shocked. … But luckily for the hand signal, the kids didn’t move.”

Another bus driver in the district said she thinks higher fines will make a difference.

“Hit them in the pocket book. And I think a course would be good for them as well,” said Mad River Local Schools bus driver Amy Hobbs.