school buses

The 8-second video shows the red lights of a stopped school bus flashing through an early morning haze.

Three seconds in, the headlights of a moving vehicle appear. It does not stop.

One second later, the outline of a child streaks across the road in front of the vehicle, which does not stop, swerves onto the shoulder and misses striking the child by mere feet.

“It’s only 8 seconds,” said Chris Darling, executive director of the Iowa Pupil Transportation Association. “But in 8 seconds, that child could have lost their life.”

Darling said the incident, which recently was captured on a camera mounted on the side of the school bus, happened in Iowa, although the school district’s administration asked Darlington not to share the district’s name. Darling said the driver was cited for illegally passing a stopped school bus and has a trial date in November.

Five years ago Iowa strengthened the penalties for violating the state’s law against passing a stopped school bus, increasing the first-offense penalty from $200 to anywhere from $250 to $675.

When the law was strengthened in 2012, it was named in honor of Kadyn Halverson, a 7-year-old north Iowa girl who was killed in 2011 when she was struck by a vehicle while crossing the road to board a school bus.

Since the penalties were increased, the number of charges and convictions for passing a stopped school bus have declined, as has the rate of convictions, according to data compiled by the state’s nonpartisan legal agency.

And yet drivers continue to pass stopped school buses at an alarming rate. Although there have been no deaths as a result of drivers passing a stopped school bus in Iowa since Kadyn Halverson, on one day this past May officials at about a third of Iowa school districts participated in a survey and observed 267 incidents of drivers passing a stopped school bus, a state education official said.

If the rate was similar across all school districts, that would equate to roughly 800 incidents in a single day.

“As a nation and a community and a state, (Iowa lawmakers in 2012) stepped up and said we need to try to find a way to prevent this and make people aware of it. And they really thought this (increased) fine system would do it,” Darling said.

“It has not.”

In 2012, there were 1,023 charges filed and 984 convictions for unlawful passing of a school bus, according to the figures compiled by Iowa’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, using data from the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Department of Human Rights.

In 2016, there were 940 charges filed and just 581 convictions.

That represents a conviction rate in 2012 of 96.2 percent and in 2016 a rate of just 61.8 percent.

Agency staff noted the data is not a perfect representation of convictions as a rate of charges because some cases can cross over calendar years.

“We just haven’t gotten any support from the county attorneys,” said Max Christensen, transportation consultant for the state education department. “They just don’t follow through on it. I don’t know if they feel they can’t get a conviction.”

But even people like Christensen and Darling, who wish to see more convictions for passing a stopped school bus acknowledge it can be difficult to catch a driver in the act, secure enough information to file charges, and prosecute.

If a school bus does not have a camera mounted on the outside — and many don’t — and no law enforcement is nearby, it is up to the bus driver to witness the violation and secure enough identifying information — a license plate number and description of the driver — to make charges stand up in court.

Bus drivers must do this all while still guiding children onto or off the bus.

“Watching kids getting on or off, your first concern is for their safety,” Christensen said. “Your second concern is to get the license plate number, the description of the driver, that sort of thing.”

Christensen and Darling also said some school bus drivers have given up on reporting incidents because they have become disheartened by a lack of charges and convictions.

“How it’s being prosecuted and followed through with is also a hindrance to the law,” Darling said.

Prosecutors with the Linn and Johnson county attorneys’ offices said some elements of the law make it difficult to prosecute.

“There is something unique about these charges,” said Matt Kishinami, Assistant Linn County Attorney. “They’re not initiated by law enforcement and the perp or suspect is not stopped and identified … at the scene of the crime.”

Because of that, the primary witness typically is the bus driver instead of a trained expert, like a police officer. Kishinami said while police often show up with their reports and tend to be experienced answering questions in front of people, that often is not the case with bus drivers.

And prosecutors must prove who was behind the wheel of the vehicle when the violation occurred.

“You have to prove who the driver was,” said Rachel Zimmerman Smith, Assistant Johnson County Attorney. “You speed, the person in the driver’s seat is the defendant. Your car drives by the school bus, it could be your 17-year-old kid. It’s hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. We still have to prove all of our offenses beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Because of the penalties associated with the crime — including the possibility of a 30-day suspension of the driver’s license — defendants are less likely to plead guilty to the offense like they would a speeding ticket or other moving violation, Zimmerman Smith said.

Attorneys and judges are prosecuting the law unevenly across the state, Darling said. He said some counties fully prosecute the law while others commonly agree to plea bargains, often with community service in place of the license revocation.

“I can get a ticket in one part of the state and actually be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said. “Then I can get a ticket in another part of the state and get it plea bargained.”

Darling said more education about the law, its penalties and the dangers of passing a stopped school bus could help reduce the number of incidents and increase the number of convictions. He and Christensen agree the law and penalties are worthwhile, but that the problem persists.

“There’s a lot of chances for kids to get hurt. It’s a real concern,” Christensen said. “I think the school bus drivers throughout the state of Iowa do a really good job of caring for the kids on their bus, and are very concerned about this. ...

“It just scares the pants off you. It really does.”

Lee Hermiston of the Cedar Rapids Gazette contributed.

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