DELAWARE COUNTY, Ind. — A new pilot program in Delaware County is working to target drivers ignoring the safety of students getting on and off of school buses.
“Safety for kids going to and from school is paramount,” said Muncie Police Department Deputy Chief Christopher Deegan. “We’ve seen some accidents the last couple of years that have been pretty serious.”
The newly-launched initiative is a partnership between the Muncie Police Department, Delaware Community School Corporation (DelCom), Yorktown Community Schools and the Delaware County Prosecutor’s Office.
“It started out with seeing Facebook posts from parents and some drivers that are friends complaining about stop arm violations. We don’t have the manpower to put a police car behind every single vehicle so I thought, how can we show enforcement? With enforcement will come some compliance,” said Sergeant Garreth Vannatta with the Muncie Police Department.
The department teamed up with Yorktown and DelCom schools’ transportation departments to launch the new program, looking to hold drivers accountable that illegally pass a school bus with its stop arm extended.
About 90% of Yorktown’s buses are equipped with stop arm cameras, according to Jeff Whitesell, transportation director for the district, and all 35 of the buses operated through DelCom are equipped with stop arm cameras, their transportation director, Derick Bright, said.
As the county has experienced a trend in increasing stop arm violations over the last few years, both Whitesell and Bright said their drivers have witnessed this firsthand.
“We’re getting them two, three, four a day. You start realizing how bad it actually is,” said Whitesell, who retired several years ago from law enforcement years ago before taking the job as transportation director. He said he began realizing the scope of the problem when he moved into his current role.
“I definitely have seen an increase in the last three years,” said Bright. “We have violators that are on highways, county roads, neighborhood roads.”
Using the buses already equipped with the technology, MPD is teaming up with the departments to keep a watchful eye for violators and hold those accountable that aren’t stopping for extended stop arms on buses.
How it works is, when drivers witness a violation, there’s a button inside the bus that they can push and it will mark the cameras, so nobody will need to spend hours scrubbing video to find the spot where the violation was recorded.
The location and time of violations will be marked down and the transportation company will alert Muncie police, who will review footage of any incidents and take the next steps.
To review the footage after they are alerted to a violation, officers with MPD will come in on their off time, paid for by a grant awarded by the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute (ICJI) that provides police agencies federal funding assistance to help maximize the probability of reducing death or injury on roadways.
Vannatta said, “I’ll be able to see the plate of the vehicle from the camera and the driver in the vehicle. From there, I’ll figure out who the vehicle belongs to — is registered to and I’ll issue a citation.”
If police can determine who the driver was, they will be issued the citation, but if not, it will be addressed to the registered owner and sent via certified mail with a picture of the vehicle involved in the violation.
“From there the e-ticket system will leave the ticket with me for 96 hours and then it will lock in and physically be electronically filed into the courts and the prosecutor’s office through the Odyssey system,” explained Vannatta.
Police said they are told that anybody who receives a stop arm violation will be required to make an appearance in Muncie City Court.
“We just want to make the public and the residents of Delaware County aware that this is something we’re going to take very seriously and we’ll put it through the prosecutor’s office, and we’ll seek full accountability for violators,” said Deegan.
Right now, MPD is the only law enforcement agency in the county involved in the initiative, but they said the hope is that it will grow and continue to prove that more enforcement equals more compliance on roads in the area.
“It isn’t about writing a violation, it’s about bringing awareness so that drivers see that bus, know that our kids are going to be getting on or off of that bus and hopefully have voluntary compliance so that we don’t have a kid that’s struck and killed, or seriously injured,” said Vannatta.
Vannatta said, county-wide, in 2018, there were no stop arm violations. In 2019, there were 10, in 2020 there were 28 and since the start of 2021, there have been 70, with 15 citations written in the last month alone.
One of those has been a result of the stop arm initiative, which is just in its infancy stages and getting off the ground. The conversations to bring this program to fruition began just a few weeks ago.
“It’s very important because we want to provide a safe environment for the kids that are going to and coming from school and we’ve seen how serious vehicle accidents can be especially involving pedestrians,” said Deegan.
Although bus drivers take the precautions they need to keep children safe, they can only control so much when it comes to the other vehicles on the road.
“As a driver, I’ve been on the bus and you see the cars coming and you know when they’re gonna stop, when they’re not gonna stop, you try to warn the kids or you can keep them on the bus when you’re sure they’re not but if they’re coming toward the bus, you just — it’s terrible to watch because you’re helpless,” said Whitesell. “The thing that surprises me is everybody knows what time school starts, everybody knows what time school ends, they know the buses are on the road.”
“The most frustrating part about some of the videos I watch are the people who have plenty of time, plenty of opportunity to stop and they completely disregard it,” said Bright, who noted some drivers look directly at the bus drivers as they’re passing the stop arm, while others are on their phones.
Jeff Barnard, a bus driver with Yorktown Community Schools said his top priority every day is getting the students he drives to and from school safety. In fact, when he first began driving, he said his own daughter was on the bus, so safety has always been a top priority along his routes.
“I want everybody to go home safe every night,” he said.
Barnard has been driving with Yorktown Community Schools for 10 years and said drivers passing the stop arms is something he sees ‘quite a bit.’ He hopes as word of the new program spreads, it encourages drivers to slow down on the roads and take into account the safety of children heading to and from school.
“You do see it every day on the road. You try to look in your mirrors to see that it’s coming,” said Barnard. “You don’t let the student off the bus until everything is clear.”
“I hope they slow down and be aware of their surroundings,” said Barnard.
Muncie police said as the partnership takes off, they hope it will prove successful in reducing the number people illegally passing the stop arms on school buses.
“In speaking with these two agencies, they’re telling me they’re getting three to four violations a day and there’s still several other agencies in Delaware County that run buses so the secondary goal of this is I hope that the other transportation agencies that don’t have the cameras outfitted on their buses will see how we’ve decreased the violations and it will be a way for them to justify putting cameras and spending the money for cameras on their buses as well,” said Vannatta.
“Anything we can do to help raise awareness for stop-arm violations, we’re more than happy to do,” said Bright. “If it keeps our fatalities to zero, there’s not enough money to make that worthwhile.”
The Delaware County Prosecutor’s Office said it takes these types of cases very seriously.
“Personally, I think the penalties are far too low for this offense. The risk to our children is just too great and violating the statute should have stiffer penalties,” said Eric Hoffman, Prosecuting Attorney for the Delaware County Prosecutor’s Office.
According to Hoffman, Indiana law states that “a person who drives a vehicle that: (1) meets or overtakes from any direction a school bus stopped on a roadway or a private road and is not stopped before reaching the school bus when the arm signal device is in the device’s extended position; or (2) proceeds before the arm signal device is no longer extended; commits a Class A infraction.” The penalty for a Class A infraction is a fine from $0 to $10,000.
Hoffman shared, “Additionally, the law provides that a person who operates a vehicle and who recklessly passes a school bus stopped on a roadway or a private road when the arm signal device is in the device’s extended position commits a Class A misdemeanor.”
If bodily injury to a person is caused, it’s a Level 6 felony, said Hoffman and a Level 5 felony if it causes the death of a person. The penalty in Indiana for a class A misdemeanor is 0 to 365 days in jail and $0 to $5,000 in fines.
Hoffman also shared, the penalty for a Level 6 felony is 6 months to 2½ years in jail and a fine of up to a $10,000. Additionally, the penalty for a Level 5 felony is anywhere from 1 to 6 years in prison, if convicted, and up to a $10,000 fine.
Hoffman said the court can also suspend a person’s driving privileges for 90 days and if the person has committed a prior offense of disregarding the school bus arm statute, the court can suspend their license for up to one year.
“We just ask that you slow down and be careful. If you see the yellow flashers, do us a favor. It doesn’t mean speed up so you can beat that stop arm coming out. Slow down and use caution,” said Vannatta.