- Associated Press - Sunday, August 27, 2017

DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) - Last school year, Dubuque Community School District officials reported 109 people to law enforcement for illegally passing school buses that were stopped to pick up or drop off children.

However, that figure probably only represents one-tenth of the actual number of illegal passers, according to district transportation Manager Kris Hall.

“We have people who just intentionally go through our stop arms,” he told the Telegraph Herald . “You can try to come up with a rationale, but there are probably hundreds.”

State and city code requires drivers who meet school buses with flashing amber lights to reduce speeds and stop when buses deploy stop arms. In most cases, drivers aren’t permitted to pass a stopped school bus.

When it comes to enforcing state and local bus stop-arm laws, several factors determine whether the drivers of the vehicles are reported, cited and convicted, according to district and law enforcement officials.

Enforcing the law and making the public aware of it is key to keeping schoolchildren safe on their rides to and from school.

“Stop-arm violations place our children at risk,” Hall said. “And we have been extremely fortunate in Dubuque that we have not had an incident.”

Of the 109 violations district officials reported in the 2016-2017 school year, 56 resulted in citations. Of those, 13 people pleaded guilty, two went to trial and were found guilty and three failed to appear in court and were found guilty, according to court records.

In 17 cases, defendants were able to have charges dismissed in exchange for performing community service or completing a defensive-driving course. Of the 13 cases that still are open, many will head to that resolution.

When investigating alleged stop-arm violations, law enforcement officers are at a disadvantage because they are relying on the testimony of the drivers, Dubuque Police Department Lt. Scott Baxter said.

The two biggest hurdles to issuing citations stem from bus drivers who write down wrong license plate numbers and from officers being unable to find the owners of the vehicles involved in the alleged offenses, Baxter said.

Assistant Dubuque County Attorney Ry Meyer said prosecuting alleged stop-arm violations can be difficult because school bus drivers are not trained observers in the way that law enforcement officers are.

Because the citation typically relies on the bus driver’s testimony, Meyer has a weaker evidence base when prosecuting a stop-arm violation case.

Meyer said he typically will offer people cited with stop-arm violations the opportunity to take defensive driving classes if their traffic histories don’t suggest ongoing risks.

“Really, a fair treatment of this issue is the bus drivers are doing the best they can,” he said. “I believe that, but they’re not trained observers in the way that police are.”

Baxter said that while there is potential for human error, he believes bus drivers know what to watch for.

He said he hopes that even drivers who are not cited or convicted will become aware of the issue and think twice the next time they come upon stopped buses.

“You hope it resonates, and every time they see a bus after that … they really think about the magnitude of potentially driving through that stop arm,” he said.

A first stop-arm violation is a simple misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $675 and up to 30 days in jail. Subsequent offenses are considered serious misdemeanors.

Drivers on highways with two or more lanes in each direction do not need to stop for school buses traveling the opposite direction.

Bob Havertape, a bus driver and driver trainer for the Dubuque Community School District, said bus drivers see stop-arm violations on a daily basis.

“I’ve had drivers drive through my stop arm, wide-open area, no obstruction, great visibility,” he said.

Still, it can be difficult for drivers to report violators because bus drivers are focused on watching children entering and exiting. Plus, it can be difficult to see a license plate number on a moving vehicle, Hall said.

“It’s a trade-off, and our trade-off will always be, we’re watching the children,” he said.

Still, district officials are working to improve compliance with the law and to improve their part in enforcement. The district’s eight new school buses each will be equipped with LED strobe lighting on front and back bumpers to improve visibility.

Additionally, 16 of the district’s buses are equipped with stop-arm cameras that can capture video of cars that pass a stopped bus illegally. Officials are phasing those cameras into the fleet by adding them to new buses.

While steps such as these have improved officials’ ability to enforce the law, there still is room to grow, Hall said.

“We’ve made strides, but when you’re only able to enforce one out of 10, there’s a great deal of improvement needed,” he said.


Information from: Telegraph Herald, https://www.thonline.com

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