School bus safety law helps protect Illinois students

The nation was horrified last fall by the story of a girl and her younger twin brothers who were struck and killed on the side of a highway while attempting to board a school bus in Rochester, Indiana. The heartbreaking story was made even worse by the knowledge that it was not the only such incident in the United States in the recent past. That same week there were fatal bus stop accidents in Mississippi and Pennsylvania, and another crash in Florida in which three students were seriously injured.

After an accident a few days later in Kentucky in which two more students were struck and injured by a passing car, local media reported the findings of a study that “estimated more than 15 million drivers passed a school bus when it was stopped, lights flashing and stop arm extended last school year alone.”

Illinois law requires a driver to stop “before meeting or overtaking, from either direction, any school
bus stopped on a highway, roadway, private road, parking lot, school property or at any other location, including, without limitation, a location that is not a highway or roadway for the purpose of receiving or discharging pupils. Such stop is required before reaching the school bus when there is in operation on the school bus the visual signals,” specified in state law. Every state in the union has a similar law.

School buses are equipped with flashing lights and an extended “stop” arm on the side of the bus as a way of attracting the attention of other motorists, who must stop before reaching the location of the bus if such signals are engaged.

In the wake of last fall’s tragedies, freshman Rep. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia), a former 17-year member of his local school board, was concerned that in spite of the law, the message just wasn’t getting through; and kids were paying the price. He heard from constituents with similar concerns, and introduced House Bill 1873 this spring to enact tougher penalties for those caught passing a school bus in violation of the law. Bailey said he believed toughening the penalties would serve as a better inducement for drivers to follow the law and keep schoolchildren safe.

“ABC Channel 7 in Chicago did a survey, and they found out that in the year 2017 bus drivers reported over 20,000 instances in Illinois where school buses were passed while the arm was out, while children were exiting,” Bailey during the House floor debate on the bill on April 11.

Bailey’s bill would leave unchanged the prohibition on passing stopped school buses with lights and extended stop arms engaged. It would, however, double the fines for breaking the law. A first offense fine will increase from $150 to $300, and a second offense within five years results in a one-year suspension of the violator’s driver license and a minimum mandatory fine of $1000, up from $500 in existing law.

“This is a public safety bill suggested by a constituent to help save lives and protect our children and grandchildren from people who ignore the stop signs and safety gates opened on school buses,” Bailey said. “These fines have not been increased for many years and just as all fines in law, these fines are intended to help stop people from putting children in danger.”

Bailey’s House Republican colleague Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer of Jacksonville also spoke in support of the bill.

“This is something that is taught, it’s required to be taught in driver’s education,” Davidsmeyer said. “My nephew just went through driver’s ed and they know how serious it is to try to pass a stopped school bus.”

Another supporter of the bill, Rep. Mark Batinick (R-Plainfield) noted that other states impose even tougher penalties. He cited Minnesota, which imposes as much as a 90-day jail sentence for a first offense.

The legislation from Rep. Bailey is just the latest attempt by lawmakers in Illinois to protect children at bus stops. In the 1980s the Secretary of State was authorized to suspend for three months the license of any motorist who was convicted of violating the law requiring stops for school buses. In this decade the state enacted legislation authorizing school districts to attach cameras to school buses to catch stop-arm violators.

“I guess I felt like it was obviously better to put this fine up there so that it might get (drivers’) attention so that maybe they won’t break the law,” Bailey said. “These fines are intended to help stop people from putting children in danger. We know that when you hit people in their wallets they tend to respond because money does not grow on trees.”

Bailey’s bill passed the House with a bipartisan vote of 74-16. It went over to the Senate, where it was sponsored by Sen. Dan McConchie (R-Hawthorn Woods).

“According to the Illinois State Board of Education, on average 33 school-age children are killed every year nationwide in school bus-related crashes, many of which are caused by a passing vehicle in violation of the school bus warning systems,” McConchie said in a news release. “This offense should not be taken lightly. Those who ignore the stop arm pose a serious public safety threat to the thousands of schoolchildren across the state.”

HB 1873 passed the Senate 53-0 on May 16. In mid-July it was signed into law by Governor J.B. Pritzker.