The school bus industry lost one of its leading illegal passing advocates on Capitol Hill as Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana died Wednesday afternoon in a multiple-fatality, head-on collision as she toured her home district in the northern part of the state.
Walorski responded to the October 2018 deaths of three siblings and the serious injury of another student as they crossed a rural state road in Rochester County, Indiana, part of Walorski’s Second Congressional District, to their awaiting school bus with the STOP for School Buses Act.
The Elkart County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that Walorski, 58, died as a result of the crash that occurred at approximately 12:32 p.m. Eastern just north of Nappanee, Indiana. Also killed were Zachery Potts, 27, her district director, and Emma Thomson, 28, the communications director of her Washington, D.C., office.
The Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday corrected an earlier statement on the facts of the collision after viewing video of the crash and interviewing more eyewitnesses. According to a statement posted Facebook, Walorski, Potts and Thomson were traveling northbound in a Toyota RAV4 on State Road 19 when the SUV crossed the center line and struck a Buick LaSabre head on. The driver of the car, Edith Schmucker, 56, was pronounced dead at the scene.
All four people were wearing seatbelts and airbags deployed in both vehicles.
The Elkhart County Coroner’s Office and the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Office are conducting the investigation. No other details were provided.
Walorski was a guest of the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) during the Capitol Hill Bus-In held April 5-8 in Washington, D.C. NSTA honored the Republican lawmaker with the Bronze Bus Award for her leadership in co-sponsoring along with Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA) the bipartisan STOP for School Buses Act, provisions of which are included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed last fall by President Joe Biden.
Public Law 117-58 directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to review existing school bus illegal passing laws in all states and to evaluate current safety measures and technologies aimed at better protecting students as they board and exit school buses.
The law also requires a review of driver education materials and a determination if illegal passing is addressed in those manuals. It will also examine any relationship between illegal passing and distracted driving, poor visibility, illumination and reach of vehicle headlights, speed limits, and characteristics associated with school bus stops, especially in rural areas.
Coincidentally, School Transportation News features elements of the STOP Act in its current August magazine issue.
NSTA said in a statement that it is “shocked and saddened” to learn of Walorski’s death. NSTA President Carina Noble added that Walorki was a tireless advocate on behalf of student transportation in the House.
“Her advocacy on pupil transportation only tells part of the story, as she was a kind and compassionate leader,” she said.
NSTA Executive Director Curt Macsysn said Walorski “will forever have a place in history for advancing school bus transportation for schoolchildren.”
A native of South Bend, Indiana and a resident of Jimtown, a suburb of Elkhart, Indiana, Walorksi was elected to Congress in 2012 after serving three terms in the Indiana State House. She was the ranking Republican on the House Ethics Committee and also served on the House Ways and Means Committee.
She recounted for the NSTA Bus Stop podcast in December 2019 that her prior career as a local television news reporter showed her the importance of advocacy to help people and become a politician. She also discussed her experience living in Romania during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
She is survived by husband Dean Swihart, an elementary school music teacher for School City of Mishwaka outside of South Bend, Indiana.
Editor’s note: This version of the article was updated to provided corrected information on the crash provided by local law enforcement.