Michael Johnson column sig

Some people either just can’t learn or they don’t care, but it’s a lesson that has been — and will continue to be — pounded into Indiana drivers' consciences for the foreseeable future.

We’re talking about school bus safety.

School buses are already one of the biggest and brightest vehicles on the road, but many school bus drivers say it seems as if the big yellow bus is invisible.

According to an editorial in the South Bend Tribune — a paper I grew up with — police departments across Indiana issued nearly 2,700 tickets and 1,400 warnings for unsafe driving around school bus stops and routes. The numbers were collected during a two-month period at the start of the current school year.

Stop arm violation data in White and Jasper counties was not immediately available, but law enforcement officials are working on compiling such data to separate it from overall traffic violation numbers.

The enforcement comes after the Indiana General Assembly passed a law stiffening penalties for school bus stop arm violations.

Known as the MAX Strong law, it passed last spring and allows prosecutors to charge drivers with the equivalent of a DUI if they get caught passing an extended stop arm of a school bus.

But people still violate it without a second thought as if it was a suggestion, not a lawful requirement.

Just last month, an Indiana woman who plowed her pickup truck into four children — killing three of them and badly injuring another — while they crossed a highway in Fulton County to get on a school bus, was sentenced last month to four years is prison.

She could have received 21½ years behind bars for the Oct. 30, 2018, incident that killed two 6-year-old twin boys, Xzavier and Mason Ingle, and their 9-year-old sister, Alivia Stahl.

The woman, Alyssa Shepherd, 25, was convicted of three counts of reckless homicide, criminal recklessness and passing a school bus causing injury.

In addition to the four years in a prison cell, Shepherd will also serve three years of house arrest and three years of probation — not to mention a 10-year suspension of her driving privileges. She was sentenced under laws previous to the MAX Strong law.

Closer to home, a media outlet reported last year that between August 2019 and November 2019, police in West Lafayette issued 78 school bus stop arm violation tickets. Police there told WLFI that even first-time offenders won’t get off with a warming. Instead, violators will receive a $234 ticket and a court date.

Alarmingly, when the TV station was filming B-roll footage for their story, they captured a violation on video along with the police’s immediate response.

It’s a real problem, and the aforementioned numbers are a water droplet in a big bucket

During a one-day count last April, 3,082 stop arm violations were voluntarily reported by 201 districts across the state. Multiply that number by 180 school days and the number approaches 555,000 statewide.

The enforcement effort is wonderful, but here’s the thing: Police can’t be on every street corner, bus route, bus stop or school building — wherever children board or disembark a school bus. It’s all about paying attention, folks.

Some schools have reconfigured their bus routes to make them safer for students, while others have installed cameras on buses to record violation incidents. All are great measures that should at least reinforce the idea that drivers are being monitored and therefore must pay attention.

Credit should be given to schools, law enforcement and lawmakers for making it tough. But when it comes down to it, it’s up to you and me — the driving public — to improve safety around school buses and stop making bad decisions.

When the stop arm is extended, you must stop: No ifs, ands or buts. Only then will the lives of our children be best protected.