This fall, sadly, brought us a handful of tragic incidents of illegal passing that led to fatalities. Most notable was the Indiana crash that killed three students and seriously injured one other on Oct. 30.
That morning, Alyssa Shepherd was driving a pickup truck when she allegedly ran a stopped school bus with its stop arm out and lights flashing, striking and killing three students and seriously injuring one other. Shepherd was charged with reckless homicide and a misdemeanor count for passing a school bus with the stop arm extended, causing injury. (She has pleaded not guilty.)
Shepherd told investigators that she didn’t see the bus or the students until it was too late to stop. It was still dark out at just after 7:00 a.m., according to what a witness of the crash told detectives.
Since early school start times can have students catching their bus before daylight, some in the state, including one lawmaker, are pushing for all of Indiana to switch to the Central Time Zone, in an effort to have more light during pickup times.
Sen. Eric Bassler is reviving that long-running debate. (Indiana currently has several western border counties on Central Time, but most of the state, including the city of Rochester, where the crash occurred, is on Eastern Time.) The change would provide up to an hour of extra daylight in the morning, according to advocates. Recent efforts to change the state’s time zone have not been successful, according to the Indianapolis Star. However, Bassler is proposing legislation to make the change.
“Literally thousands of kids are standing on the side of the streets in the pitch dark waiting for a bus to pick them up,” Bassler told the newspaper. “If it were daylight, even sort of daylight, it would be more noticeable for drivers to see the kids as they approach and it’s less likely there’d be some type of accident.”
Ron Chew, president of the Indiana State School Bus Drivers Association, told School Bus Fleet that most bus routes in the state start before daylight — between 6 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. — but that if the entire state was on Central Time, there would be daylight when drivers began their routes.
“We have been trying to get Indiana converted to Central Time for about 10 years now, and it’s sad that it took this tragedy to bring that issue to light,” Chew said.
Chew conceded that one drawback to the switch could be less light in the late afternoon when students are coming home from school, but he said he doesn’t see that as being as big a risk factor.
Another debate in the state legislature, brought up by an article in the Muncie Star Press, has been over the approval of a specific safety lighting system.
Indiana is not one of the 19 states that have approved the use of the Gardian Angel system, which uses a white flood light at the front of the bus to illuminate a path for students to cross the street and to make the students more visible to motorists.
Indiana considered approving the lighting system a couple of years ago, according to the newspaper, but decided against it because of a dispute between state officials and the company over whether a switch should be added for bus drivers to manually activate, which state officials wanted.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bassler is not just urging the time zone change; he is also re-introducing a bill to toughen penalties on motorists who illegally pass school buses. (Additionally, for this new legislative session, Sen. Randy Head has drafted a bill that addresses same-side pickups on state highways; reducing speed limits near bus stops; and increasing penalties for traffic law violations resulting in death.)
Although tragic, the crash may be instructive of other sometimes overlooked hazards such as lack of visibility near some stops, whether caused by early morning pickup times or insufficient lighting, while the industry continues to educate the public on the dangers of passing buses and distracted driving.