School districts across Indiana rapidly adding stop arm cameras to catch drivers breaking the law

ROSSVILLE, Ind. -- Six months after a tragic crash killed three young Hoosier students, school districts across the state have quickly increased efforts to add stop arm cameras to buses.

Twins Mason and Xzavier Ingle, 6, and their sister Alivia Stahl, 9, died on a rural Rochester, Ind. road in October, after a driver failed to stop as they were getting on their school bus. The children's parents have lobbied lawmakers to increase penalties for drivers who drive by a stop arm, saying they hope to stop another family from feeling their unthinkable pain.

CBS4 Problem Solvers took a ride with a police chief in Rossville, Ind. and a bus driver in Lebanon, Ind. to see how stop arm cameras work and why districts are spending thousands of dollars to implement them.

Both districts showed us video captured by the buses of drivers speeding past stop arms that were activated while students got on or off the bus. Rossville's cameras even caught a semi truck driver blowing by a stop arm, despite clear warnings to stop.

"I feel it's an epidemic," Rossville Consolidated Schools' Police Chief Joe Mink said.

Mink, who started in his role this January, has already worked with the Clinton County Prosecutor's Office to prosecute 19 drivers for ignoring stop arms. Deputy Prosecutor Chris Vawter said that number far exceeds last year's numbers, which totaled less than five cases for the entire county.

"(The camera is) silent, but it’s always there and very, very helpful so far," Vawter said.

It cost between $1,700 and $2,500 to buy and install each set of cameras in Rossville, but Superintendent Jim Hanna said the money was worth it. Hanna had already begun adding the cameras before the crash in Rochester, and he has since also reconfigured all of the district's bus stops so that no children have to cross the street to get on or off the bus.

"I want people to know that if you travel highways and county roads in this school district, we’ve got somebody that’s ... looking at the video, and the video is on our school buses," Hanna said.

30 miles away, Lebanon Schools became one of the first districts in the state to fully implement stop arm cameras when they outfitted all 50 of their buses last fall, at a cost of $44,000.

"We’re really trying to be pretty harsh on getting people to realize that the life of a child’s not worth ... two or three minutes to sit and wait at a stop arm," Director of Transportation Becky Nichols said.

CBS4 Problem Solvers rode along with bus driver Dick Ferguson, who started working for the district 10 years ago when he retired from his full-time job.

"It seems to be the yellow lights mean speed up because they know the stop arm’s going to come out," Ferguson said.

Ferguson was the first in the district to pilot the stop arm cameras last spring, because his route along State Road 39 causes the most violations. In fact, Ferguson has twice had to pull a child away from a car that was coming towards the bus, despite its stop arm being out.

"I just reached over and grabbed hold of (one student's) shoulder, grabbed hold of her clothing and pulled her back," Ferguson said.

Since Lebanon added cameras to Ferguson's bus, and then to all the buses in the fall, the district has caught 98 violations and issued 34 tickets. Seven cases have gone to trial, and a judge found the driver guilty in all but one of those cases.

Boone County Prosecutor Kent Eastwood said the cameras make a difference because they provide clear evidence in court. He said the county has worked hard with police to educate drivers about stop arms and prosecute those who don't stop.

"It's a real simple thing to do, right? Just stop," Eastwood said.

You'll soon face a stiffer penalty for violating the stop arm law, too. A bill passed April 23 at the Statehouse will increase minimum penalties from traffic infractions to misdemeanor charges which carry the possibility of jail time, and add possible felony charges if you directly endanger the life of a child. It also gives judges the option to suspend a driver's license for 90 days, or an entire year if you're caught violating more than once. Lawmakers struggled with provisions to help districts pay for the cameras, ultimately adding a provision that will allow them to ask county officials to help with costs.

If your school district isn't adding stop arm cameras already, there's a good chance they are talking about it. According to the Indiana Department of Education, 36 districts across the state had added the cameras to at least 400 buses total as of January this year. Hanna said he expected most districts will order new buses with the cameras already installed in the future.

Districts also participate in an annual count of violations, which took place this week across the state. Data from that count should be available soon. Last year, 200 districts counted more than 3,000 violations in one day. You can view past years' data at the link here.

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