• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

School bus tragedy brings awareness to student safety

KAY PENN, director of transportation for Woodford County Public Schools, is pictured with “Buster” talking to students about school bus safety last December. She spoke about school bus safety again Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 30. That conversation with her drivers happened after a pickup truck struck and killed three siblings crossing a road to get onto their school bus in northern Indiana earlier that morning. (File photo by Bob Vlach)

The tragic news of three Indiana siblings being killed while crossing a road to get onto their school bus heightens awareness among bus drivers to always stay vigilant in what they’re doing to keep students safe, said Kay Penn, director of transportation for Woodford County Public Schools.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Penn of the tragedy. “You just break down yourself because it can happen at any time.

“We do everything that we can to train our drivers and ... to prevent those things (from happening, but) you just can’t prevent someone else’s actions.”

According to Indiana State Police, a pickup truck struck a 9-year-old girl and her twin 6-year-old brothers while they were crossing the road to get onto their school bus, which had stopped and lowered its stop arm, last Tuesday morning, Oct. 30.

That afternoon, Penn said she talked to her drivers about school bus safety and they watched a news report about the deadly Indiana crash, which also critically injured a fourth child.

“It’s a reminder to us. We don’t want a tragedy to ever happen. But we all are very much aware that at any time when we’re out there, we’re facing dangers on every stop...,” said Penn.

Penn said she regularly talks to drivers about the importance of reminding students to not cross a road – or approach the bus – until they’ve been told or signaled by the bus driver that it’s safe to do so. “And still even at that,” she added, “tragedies like this can happen.” She pointed out that students are not “outside of your reach” as a bus driver when they’re on the bus before being dropped off. Her message to drivers in that scenario, “… Don’t open the door until you know all traffic is stopped,” she said.

“It’s scary” when a motorist does not stop for a bus getting ready to load or unload students, Penn said. “It’s devastating to us,” she added, whenever a child is nearly hit by a motorist who disregards a bus’s stop arm signal device.

While Kentucky does have a law that prohibits a driver from passing a stopped school or church bus, Penn said many violations across the state are unfortunately not prosecuted.

According to information provided to the state Department of Education from Kentucky’s Court of Justice, 37 drivers who violated that law were found guilty with the remaining 35 violations being dismissed from Jan. 1, 2018 to March 31, 2018. A similar outcome was reported from April 1, 2018 to June 30, 2018 when 33 of 66 violations were dismissed.

Kentucky Court of Justice records also show that Woodford County had one violation during each timeframe, and both of those violators were convicted and each paid a $100 fine.

“The ones that have crossed my desk have been prosecuted,” said Woodford County Attorney Alan George. He noted one of the challenges of being able to report and then prosecute a violation of the law is getting the license plate number of the vehicle that passes a stopped school bus.

He said one of the other issues that can arise in such cases is being able to identify the person who was actually driving at the time of the violation. However, he pointed out that the person in whose name the vehicle is registered or leased is presumed to be the operator under state law.

A person faces a minimum fine of a $100 and up to a $200 fine for a first offense (and/or not less than 30 days and up to 60 days in jail). Subsequent offenses within three years carry stiffer penalties: a minimum fine of $300 and up to $500 with the possibility of a jail term of not less than 60 days and up to six months. “It’s one of the rare traffic cases that has the potential for jail time,” said George. In addition to a fine, George said there’s also a court cost of $143 and a violation puts six points – the maximum points for a traffic offense – on a person’s driving record.

“There’s some teeth there (in Kentucky’s law),” said George. “There just aren’t that many reported cases – at least here.”

Because of the nature of the offense, police officers typically do not witness a violation, according to George. Instead, he said they take a complaint and then investigate the allegation before a person is summoned to appear in court and face the charge of passing a stopped school bus.

“The most important investigative piece is the license plate,” said George.

However, getting that key piece of information can be “very hard for a bus driver to get as a vehicle is passing,” said Penn in an email. She noted that many violations are not reported here because of that lack of information.

George said drivers are not subject to the penalties of passing a stopped church or school bus on a divided highway where they are traveling in the opposite direction of a bus, citing U. S. 60 West as an example.

In addition to the safety concerns related to motorists not stopping for a bus that’s loading or unloading students, Penn said there are numerous blind spots for bus drivers in “a 10- to 12-foot danger zone around the bus.”

She said elementary students in Woodford County schools will learn about this danger zone during “In and Around the Bus,” a school bus safety program planned for this month.

In addition to that program, Penn said drivers periodically talk to students about this danger zone during the school year.

“No matter how many safety measures we put into place, a (bus) driver has to be vigilant all the time,” said Penn.

A new bus driver typically has four to six, and sometimes eight weeks of training before being certified, according to Penn. She said drivers must have eight hours of additional instruction every year for re-certification.

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