School bus safety highlighted through stop arm cameras

NOW: School bus safety highlighted through stop arm cameras

MISHAWAKA, Ind. - School bus drivers have had a lot on their plate this year but tonight's Learning Curve story is not coronavirus related at all. We take a deeper look at school bus stop arms, why some drivers are ignoring them, how one family has been impacted and a local district aiming to help fix the problem.

Transportation staff at Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation have installed cameras on the sides of 135 of their buses.

Why? Because drivers are ignoring the signs right in front of them.

"The 10 feet around the bus is the most dangerous part of student ridership," Brandon Tugmon, the Assistant Director of Transportation for the corporation said.

On October 30th, 2018, one of the most devastating crashes involving a school bus happened in Rochester. A truck passing a school bus stop arm killing three kids. Alivia Stahl, Mason Ingle and Xzavier ingle and seriously injuring a fourth, Maverik Lowe.

“That day you know I died too with my kids on that road. The only difference is I just feel like they forgot to bury me," Brittany Ingle, the mom of Alivia, Mason and Xzavier said.

In July of 2020 the M.A.X. Strong Law went into effect in Indiana. The law, named after the three children who died, strengthens bus stop safety legislation like increasing penalties for not stopping for school buses.

"This just didn’t happen in Rochester, Indiana. This happened all over, from Tampa, Florida, to Pennsylvania to Georgia. And it can’t happen again,” Ingle said.

"It makes your stomach hurt, you know, kind of get that pit in your stomach and you feel very angry nauseous just scared because you definitely don't want to experience that you don't want to see that happen," Brittany Headman, a bus driver for PHM said.

What happened in Rochester isn’t unique to the city. In fact, thousands of vehicles ignore stop arms all over the country. A statistic that even surprises the Assistant Director of Transportation for PHM, Brandon Tugmon. 

"These numbers every time I see these numbers they blow me away," Tugmon said. “81,808 over a nine-year period, so almost 10,000 a year.”

And those numbers come from a one-day nationwide survey.

"So 10,000 a day on that day," he said.

For Headman, it’s an impossible situation.

"There's nothing you can do. I mean, when you're in that driver's seat, you can't do anything, but maybe lay on your horn, and that's not going to stop a car that might get their attention but it's not going to stop them," she said.

What might stop them? These cameras.

"So the stop arm cameras always filming, when the door opens, and that stop arm comes completely out. At that point, if a driver passes that stop arm, they are violating the law," Tugmon said.

Let's say you're a driver and I see a school bus with the stop arm out. If there is a raised median or barrier you can drive through with caution. But if there are just lines in a two-way road, then you'd have to stop.

"As they're moving forward, we'll see them pass in front and as they pass by the rear stop arm Campbell then get their license plate and videoed them as they drive past," Tugmon said.

But this added protection comes at a price.

“$363,000. It's from our operation budget," he said. “I don't think anyone's gonna put a price tag on any one kid's life. I think it's a pretty easy decision.”

But have these cameras made a difference yet? Has it reduced the number of cars ignoring the stop arm Tugmon says not yet.

"At this point, we continue to get the awareness out there that we have these and we hope to see those numbers go down. But we are consistently sending these violations to both the st. Joe county police department and Mishawaka," he said.

Before, drivers had to rely on their own memory to catch the culprit.

"Anytime a driver calls in over the radio saying that they just had someone on their stop or they tried to give us the license plate number so that we can write it down in the office," Headman said.

But now, these cameras have already caught dozens of drivers breaking the law.

"It catches all around the bus the front of the bus. If there's anything questionable or anything like that it will catch," she said.

"We see multiple a week. I would say that we average at least one a day," Tugmon said.

"It's very often, it's almost every day. I drive almost every day, and I see it probably three out of five days," Headman said.

"Unfortunately. Sometimes we do get past that. And we get into double digits for the week," Tugmon said.

The camera even catching two cars already in less than a day!

“I made a stop and two cars failed to stop and they ran through the red lights that were out," Headman said.

"You either send out an infraction or based on some other situations, they could go up to a misdemeanor in some cases," Tugmon said.

The system, providing some relief for drivers and parents and bringing just a little more safety into a year that requires it.

"Ultimately, no one wants to see a reenactment or anything of what happened down south. You know, I have two young kids I think about frequently and I would hate for any family to have to go through anything like that. It's only an extra 30 seconds to a minute, just stop, wait, be patient. And, you know, we'll soon as we can, we'll get that bus moving again and you can get on your way," Tugmon said.

Let's say the bus driver sees someone ignoring the stop arm. Well with a click of the button it timecodes the moment so they can look back at the footage and send it to the authorities.

The driver, in that case, is in jail. Alyssa Shepherd was found guilty in 2019 of three counts of reckless homicide, one count of criminal recklessness and one count of driving around a school bus with a stop arm extended.

In December 2019 she was sentenced to 4 years in prison, three years in home detention and three years probation. Her license will also be suspended for 10 years.

She has since appealed the decision but was denied.

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