Leaders concerned with children's safety as drivers illegally pass school buses

Mar. 19—OTTAWA — Don Horstman becomes frustrated when he thinks about the driver who illegally passed between a stopped school bus and children waiting to cross township Road I-9 in February.

The incident marks the third time in five years when a driver has come between a stopped bus and students, the Ottawa-Glandorf schools superintendent said.

Already this school year, Horstman said Ottawa-Glandorf has recorded 12 red-light violations or instances when drivers illegally passed a stopped school bus.

"It's not a matter of if something is going to happen, it's when if we don't start getting this under control," Horstman said.

Ohio law requires drivers on both sides of the road to stop at least 10 feet from a stopped school bus unless the bus is stopped on a four-lane highway, during which only drivers on the same side of the road should stop and wait for the bus to resume its route or wave vehicles to pass.

Violators may be fined up to $500 and see their driver's license suspended even if no one is injured.

"It's an inconvenience (to stop)," said Nate Garlock, safety services director for Lima schools, which has recorded 10 bus violations this school year, "but it's maybe a minute at most to stop and wait to ensure that we don't have some sort of tragedy."

Schools are increasingly relying on exterior cameras to capture video of vehicles illegally passing buses, but superintendents say identifying drivers is difficult when vehicles pass too quickly or don't have front license plates, which are easier to capture on camera.

Wapakoneta schools Superintendent Aaron Rex said his district plans to install stop-arm cameras to capture clearer images of rear license plates, but school officials say other factors like inclement weather can result in poor image quality too.

The prevalence of drivers illegally passing stopped school buses varies by district, with some districts like Shawnee schools reporting red light violations "almost daily," according to Transportation Director Mike Bosch, while smaller districts like Waynesfield-Goshen report as few as five violations a year.

"The biggest issue is people ignoring (bus stop arms): going around it, treating it like the yellow traffic light where they think, 'Oh, I can beat it,' " Garlock said, "so they speed up and go around it."

Bus violations are more common on state routes, Delphos schools Superintendent Jeff Hobbs said via email.

Ditto for roads with speed limits in excess of 45 miles per hour where motorists "may be operating in 'cruise control' mode," Bath schools Transportation Director Keanna McNamara said, noting that the district installed quick-flashing LED warning lights and additional stop signs to alert drivers that a bus is stopped.

Distracted driving likely contributes to the problem too.

"School bus drivers sit higher up and see many motorists with phones down in their laps," McNamara said. "We ask the public to please consider the safety consequences of phone use while driving."