Editor’s Note: The original version of this article posted on July 10 contained quotes and comments that are disputed by a manufacturer of extended stop arms. STN regrets any resulting confusion or obfuscation. The new version reflects additional reporting.
Indiana school districts received the green light in June to use longer stop arms that extend out from school buses, and across the left lane of traffic during student loading and unloading.
The decision is largely in response to an incident that occurred last October, when three siblings were struck and killed by an illegally passing vehicle in rural Rochester County, Indiana. Since then, state officials have elevated their safety concerns and updated laws to ensure more complete school bus safety.
Attorney General Curtis T. Hill, Jr. issued an Official Opinion, No. 2019-4, on June 27 and addressed it to Mike Mentzel, chair of the Indiana State School Bus Committee, and Michael LaRocco, director of transportation at the Indiana Department of Education. It said that motorists who pass a stopped school bus in either direction when the stop arm is in use are liable for any resulting property damage or personal injury.
The longer stop arm, which is already being used in several states, extends from 4.5 feet to 6.5 feet from the left side of the school bus. The use of extended stop arms, according to Attorney General Hill, has reduced the number of illegally passing vehicles by 50 to 100 percent.
Bus Safety Solutions said it has patented the extended school bus stop design. In a patent search on the U.S. Patent Database, School Transportation News found two patents relating to an extended stop arm. The “school bus stop safety breakaway arm extension” patented by Robert Geyer, president and founder of Bus Safety Solutions in January 2016, and the “safety sign device with dual signs and related methods” by Danny Ringer in August 2018. An update to the Ringer patent this year accounted for “modular dual signs.”
As of July, Bus Safety Solutions said its product is currently being used in 62 school systems across 13 states, plus an additional two states that are starting pilot programs within the next two months, including Rhode Island. Bus Safety Solutions issued a press release last month that said the product is being used on 850 school buses, and there have been zero reports of injuries to students from being struck by a vehicle during a stop-arm violation.
Meanwhile, Shelby Eastern Schools, located southeast of Indianapolis, is waiting for the go-ahead from the Indiana State School Bus Committee to install these devices as a pilot program, Assistant Transportation Director Katrina Falk told School Transportation News. She added that the district is looking to use these extended stop arms on buses that travel along major two-lane highways.
“I don’t think it’s something that I would do on every single bus in our district, just because of the geography that we are in, but I would certainly appreciate the opportunity to place them on two or three of our buses that are in those heavier traffic areas,” Falk explained.
Hill’s opinion states that the Indiana School Bus Committee has the authority to regulate the required equipment for a school bus. Therefore, it may establish whether a school bus is required to have an extended stop arm signal device or not. Requiring or permitting an extended stop arm does not raise any additional liability issues for the school districts, he concluded.
Scott Geyer, vice president for Bus Safety Solutions and Robert’s son, relayed that his company’s extended stop arm complies with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 131 that sets requirements for school bus pedestrian safety devices.
Adam Baker, press secretary for the Indiana Department of Education, told School Transportation News that any measure that makes a student safer is appreciated. But first, the specification committee must complete 14 steps before the state can adopt a new rule.
First, the specifications committee must study the product, and write procedures and guidelines for districts to follow, if they choose to purchase and install the equipment. This process could take up to a year. A final rule would then need to be submitted to the Attorney General for approval before it could be published.
However, there are additional considerations to be made before potentially mandating this equipment, Baker said.
He recognized that the intent of the extended stop arm is to protect students, but he added that the last thing anyone wants is for it to malfunction and harm a student. For example, he relayed that one of the local Indiana bus dealers he spoke with informed him that the bolts on the stop arms must be inspected daily and replaced monthly.
“So, that is a consideration. That is not just a cost, but another item that you have to make sure your local mechanics understand,” Baker said.
Geyer told School Transportation News that while his company recommends to school districts that they inspect the bolts daily, they must change them twice a year.
“We recommend that the driver when doing their pre-trip inspection, which they are doing every day and every time they go into their bus, look over the bolts like they do with everything else on their bus,” Geyer explained.
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Falk added that she is also hearing about hesitation coming from local bus dealers.
“At least from the conversations that I have had with the dealers, where we purchase our buses from, even though the attorney general has issued that statement there is still some uncertainty on whether or not there could be liability on the part of either the school bus manufacturer, if they offer it as a school bus option, or the school bus dealer if they install it,” Falk said.
Falk suggested that Indiana look to the states that have already authorized the use of the longer stop arms when developing guidance on liability.
“To me, if we are getting the attention of one motorist that we didn’t have the attention of before, that is a success in my book,” Falk pointed out “I understand those are the hard conversations, if one is struck, is that motorists going to sue the school district, the dealer the bus came from and the manufacturer, and so on and so forth. But sometimes I feel like we are jumping to the absolute worst-case scenario. What’s going to happen if the stop arm is struck? But then I go back to, I’d rather the stop arm be struck than a child be struck.”
Sgt. Chris Kath, the school bus safety coordinator for the Indiana State Police, said that the attorney general’s clarification should put an end to any liability concerns.
“The state school bus committee sent a request for clarification from the Indiana attorney general and he released his ruling at the end of the month, basically stating that it’s the liability of the driver who’s committing an illegal act if they were to strike the stop arm,” Kath said.
Baker mentioned other considerations for school districts in Indiana to consider when determining the potential implications of extended stop arms, including their use in rural areas and blocking one lane of traffic versus four-lanes of traffic.
“There are so many things to consider, it’s good to have these discussions and then at the end of the day say, ‘Okay, here is what these discussions look like, here are our considerations, here is the structure. Districts, it is up to you to decide if this is a measure you want to implement or not,’” Baker said.
Geyer, meanwhile, pointed to the successes that other states and school districts have experienced since installing the Bus Safety Solution product. He added that his company’s extended stop arms have reduced illegal passing incidents by at least half, and in some cases entirely.
Guilford County Schools in North Carolina was one of the first school districts to install the longer stop arms. STN reported in May 2018 that the district had 150 school buses equipped with the extended stop arm. STN contacted Guilford County Schools for an update on the pilot program but has not heard back at the time of this writing.
With the passage of SB 166 in June, Maine became the latest state to authorize the use of these longer stop arms when the red lights are flashing.
In May 2018, RUS #57 conducted a pilot program with one extended stop arm on a bus. Now, the district has nine extended stop arms installed and said it recorded a significant decrease in vehicles illegally passing school buses.
Director of Transportation Mathew Kearns said he installed the extended stop arms on routes that operate in heavy traffic areas, and where the district was seeing the most violations take place. He added that the longer stop arms are responsible for reducing multiple violations a day to only a handful over the entire past school year.
“They have been amazing. I honestly thought they would make some difference, but I didn’t realize how much of a difference they would really make,” Kearns said.
Kearns added that no additional maintenance is required of his extended stop arms. He said that it took district mechanics a couple of hours to install the pneumatic or air-operated stop arms, as opposed to the electric option. Kearns reported that the air option works better on RUS #57 school buses, especially during colder weather.