INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A legislative panel is backing tougher penalties for drivers who pass school buses with extended stop arms after members heard from relatives of three children fatally struck while crossing a northern Indiana highway.
An Indiana Senate committee voted unanimously Wednesday to endorse a bill that would suspend the driver's license for 90 days the first time someone convicted of recklessly passing a stopped school bus and a year for repeat offenders. Other provisions would create felony offenses to recklessly pass a bus and injure or kill someone and allow $1,000 fines against repeat offenders recorded by school bus cameras.
Michael Stahl, whose 9-year-old daughter was killed in the Oct. 30 pre-dawn collision on Indiana 25 near Rochester, said he knows the tougher penalties won't stop all drivers from disregarding school bus stop arms, but compared the steps to the tightening of drunken driving laws in raising awareness.
"We can raise the stakes," Stahl said. "We can speak the language that everybody speaks and that's money. If you increase the penalty, people begin to think twice."
Alivia Stahl and her twin 6-year-old half brothers, Xzavier and Mason Ingle, died in the crash. The driver who hit the children told authorities she didn't realize she was approaching a stopped school bus, despite the activated stop arm and flashing lights, until the children were right in front of her. She's pleaded not guilty to three counts of reckless homicide.
A one-day tracking by school districts around the state last year recorded nearly 3,100 stop-arm violations, which would extrapolate to more than 500,000 violations over a school year, said Mike Brown, legislative affairs director for the state Department of Education.
Bill sponsor Sen. Randy Head of Logansport said the high possible fines were justified because some drivers can be impatient and not think about the risk of hitting a child when passing school buses.
"If someone is doing this more than once they've got to get the understanding that this is wrong, this is unsafe, you are jeopardizing the lives of children," Head said.
Brittany Ingle, the mother of the children killed in the crash, and her husband Shane, the boys' father, said during a news conference last month that they did all they could to teach the children about safely crossing the road from their neighborhood to the bus stop and hoped their tragedy leads to greater protections for other children.
The bill, which now goes to the full Senate for consideration, also would prohibit school bus stops at locations where children would have to cross highways outside city or town limits and requiring annual route safety reviews by school districts.