Dan Carden and Carley Lanich, Times of Northwest Indiana
INDIANAPOLIS — State lawmakers are proposing stiffer penalties for school bus stop-arm violations, along with widespread camera enforcement of distracted driving, following an October crash in Fulton County that killed three children boarding a school bus.
On Tuesday, the family of Alivia Stahl, 9, and 6-year-old twins Xzavier and Mason Ingle, joined state Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, and state Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, at the Statehouse to advocate for Head's Senate Bill 2 and Pressel's House Bill 1340.
The children's grandfather, Michael Schwab, said the best way to protect kids is to hold drivers accountable through increased consequences for distracted and reckless driving, which he suggested should be on par with drunken driving.
"We've been really lucky that we haven't had more fatalities. But we can't depend on luck anymore," Schwab said. "We cannot continue to gamble with the safety of our children."
The children's mother, Brittany Ingle, said: "No mother or father should ever have to bury their child. Innocent children were trying to go to school; I support this bill 100 percent."
Head's legislation would make passing a school bus with its stop arm extended a misdemeanor crime, potentially punishable by jail time, instead of just an infraction with an associated fine. Repeat offenders also could lose their driver's licenses for up to one year.
In addition, a motorist who injures someone while illegally passing a stopped school bus could be convicted of a level 6 felony and face up to 2½ years behind bars and a $20,000 fine.
"We hope that a driver who gets caught and is prosecuted and has to pay a stiffer fine or serve a greater penalty, is going to think about that more the rest of the time that they drive, and they're going to tell their friends and family about it, and we're going to publicize the issue," Head said.
Head acknowledged that tougher penalties won't necessarily prevent every instance of dangerous driving near school buses, and likely wouldn't have prevented the Fulton County crash.
But Head is confident the change will have some effect. "I think it's worth doing in this case just because of the substantial cost that our society has to pay when a child is hit by a car," he said.
Pressel, likewise, is proposing that Indiana authorize camera enforcement for school bus stop-arm violations, as well as speeding violations in road construction zones, to reduce injuries and deaths caused by distracted or speeding drivers.
The minimum fine would be $300, with a second violation triggering a $750 fine, and any subsequent violations within five years costing $1,000 each.
His proposal also would bar motorists from using a mobile electronic device for any reason while operating a vehicle, not just texting. Accessing maps and hands-free devices still would be permitted.
"Any time we can get people to slow down and pay attention to what they're doing, we save lives," Pressel said.
Both measures also encourage school districts to relocate school bus stops to places where children will not have to cross busy streets to get picked up.
Following the Fulton County crash last fall, Lake Central School Corp. joined local police in its Stop Arm Violation Campaign to bring awareness to violations of stop arm laws.
The Lake Central School Board discussed adding two stop arm cameras to each of its buses in a November meeting. Superintendent Larry Veracco said the district has since received one stop arm camera and began testing Tuesday, students' first day back from winter break.
Veracco said he believes current penalties for stop arm violations are sufficient, but that greater awareness is needed for enforcement.
"We just need to enforce laws so periodically word spreads in all communities that the law is being enforced," he said. "This will nearly eliminate the problem."