Change in school bus law to make kids safer


DUBOIS — Any day that Northeast Dubois bus driver John Fuhrman doesn’t have a driver run his school bus stop arm is an odd day.

Fuhrman has driven the same route — Route 9 — that mostly goes along U.S. 231 and State Road 56 for years, and at several stops, his riders have to cross the road. The stop-arm violations make their crossing even more dangerous.

But a change in school bus law aims to eliminate those dangers.

Last session, the Indiana General Assembly changed school bus laws to mandate that when a school bus is operated on a U.S. route or state route, outside of the boundary of a city or town, the driver may not load or unload a student at a location that requires the student to cross a roadway, unless there are no other safe alternatives. The change came in response to an Oct. 18, 2018, accident in Rochester that killed three students.

Several years ago, state law stated that when a school bus is operated on a highway, the driver shall load and unload a student as close as practical to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway. That was repealed in 2015, but remained a best practice. Mandating students to only be picked up and dropped off on the right-hand side is an all new safety measure.

Schools recently learned of the change, and while personnel agree the law will make it safer for rural students, it’s not without its challenges.

For Northeast Dubois, for example, the change means several routes have had to be reworked a few weeks before the start of the school year, and for some of the students, it will mean longer school bus rides. The change adds about 35 miles to Furhman’s route, which translates to about 45 minutes.

“Before, my first pickup was at 7 a.m.,” Furhman said. “Now it might have to be 6:30 a.m. I’ll have to see how the first week works out.”

That first week will tell him which students will ride the bus and which won’t, he said.

The added miles and time come from having to drive the same road twice and having to find a suitable place to turn around. In Furhman’s case, he’ll have to drive an extra 6 miles just to find somewhere he can turn around.

“You can’t turn a 35-foot school bus around just anywhere,” he pointed out.

Furhman isn’t the only Northeast Dubois bus driver affected by the change. Superintendent Bill Hochgesang said the change affects half the corporation’s bus routes, as there are four state highways outside town limits in the corporation. And there isn’t much overlap in the routes to have one driver do one side of a highway and a different driver do the other.

“I think the challenging part is that the buses will have to turn around several times to double back,” Hochgesang said.

And those extra miles could mean more money spent on transportation, as most drivers are contracted based on how many miles they drive.

Northeast Dubois isn’t the only local corporation adjusting to the change. At North Spencer, Transportation Director Mark Schum has had to adjust about 12 routes.

“It’s not like we had a bunch of crossings on highways outside the city limits,” he said. “But we did have some.”

At the places where students do cross the highways, safety is a top priority, with administrators and bus drivers often going to bus stops to analyze the area and figure out the best way for kids to enter and exit the bus.

At Southwest Dubois, Transportation Director Kelly Murphy didn’t have to make any changes. It’s been the corporation’s policy for a while to only load and unload students on the right side of the road.

Greater Jasper Superintendent Tracy Lorey and Southeast Dubois Superintendent Jamie Pund could not be reached for comment.

While school staff agree the changes will make bus rides safer, they question why the change only applies to highways outside city or town limits when most of the stop-arm violations they see are within city limits.

Last year, for example, Southwest Dubois saw four stop-arm violations in towns and four instances where drivers turned onto the main road from a parking lot or side road while the bus was stopped. The latter don’t legally count as stop-arm violations as the cars did not pass the full length of the bus. None of those instances put the students in any danger, Murphy said, because they were on the right side of the bus and the drivers were on the left side. But, he said drivers still need to be more aware when they’re around school buses.

Northeast Dubois bus driver Tony Quinn saw two stop-arm violations last year, both in a town, although his route takes him along State Road 56.

“In towns is where we have the most trouble, but [the law] doesn’t pertain to that,” Quinn said.

While Quinn knows the change will make kids safer, he’d like to see the legislature create harsher punishments for stop-arm violators and include more about school bus safety on driving tests. Putting more regulations on schools isn’t going to solve the problem, he said. Drivers have to change their habits around school buses.

“People just are not paying attention,” he said.

As the start of school gets closer — Aug. 7 in the first day — bus drivers will communicate with their families to update them on the change and how their kids will be affected, but parents can contact their kids’ schools with any questions.

School staff asks for everyone’s patience during the first few weeks of school as the changes and kinks are worked out.

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