A bill introduced April 22 to Ohio legislators by District 2 Senator Theresa Gavarone would stiffen penalties for what she calls an alarming increase in motorists improperly passing school buses.
Senate Bill 134, or the “School Bus Safety Act,” will undergo review by a Senate committee and receive sponsorship testimony by Gavarone (R-Bowling Green). It would increase the first-time fine for improperly passing a school bus from $500 to $1,000, and the second offense fine to $1,250. A second offense would also raise the driver’s license suspension from level 7 to level 6.
Under the new bill, the penalty for vehicular assault of a child from improper passing would raise from a fourth-degree to a third-degree felony. Vehicular homicide of a child would raise from a third-degree to a second-degree felony.
Currently, first- and second-time offenders passing a school bus can be fined $500 and can receive a level 7 license suspension.
The new bill would also create a $500,000 pilot program to install cameras on school buses, and allow video from the cameras to be used as corroborating evidence in a prosecution. And the bill would designate August as School Bus Safety Awareness Month.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, between 2015-17 in Ohio over 4,300 accidents involving school buses occurred, and nearly 4,200 tickets were issued for improperly passing school buses.
“It’s a real problem,” Gavarone said. “I think it’s important to remind people of what the laws are, and really get the message out. It’s important to the safety of our kids.”
SB 134 comes on the heels of a rear-end accident March 27 in Henry County between a stopped Archbold school bus and a commercial truck. Two children on the bus were uninjured but the bus driver, Joanne Cousino, and the truck driver, Kelly Braden, were transported to Fulton County Health Center in Wauseon.
The crash was caught on surveillance video at a nearby business and received national attention.
On Jan. 21, 2010, 15-year-old Northview High School student Morgan Davis was struck and killed by a sport utility vehicle that failed to stop while she crossed a street in to catch a bus in Sylvania. The driver, Cynthia Anderson of Toledo, was sentenced to probation.
Prior to introducing SB 134, Gavarone, whose own children rode on Bowling Green school buses, spoke with numerous school superintendents, transportation directors, and bus drivers, as well as members of law enforcement and parents. She said information she gathered about increasing incidences of improper passing was alarming.
“People are too much in a hurry or paying attention to their phones. They don’t want to be stuck behind a school bus or they’re just not paying attention,” she said. “You put (your children) on the bus and never think twice about their safety. And what could be more important than the safety of our children?”
Randy Gardner, state chancellor of higher education, conducted public forums on school bus safety in 2018 while he was District 2 state senator. He heard plenty from concerned school officials and parents.
“It was disturbing…They believed people were in a hurry and kind of blatantly disobeyed the law,” he said. “I was surprised at the number. It’s actually not taking seriously the law, which tells me, effectively, that the law is not doing it’s job.”
Ohio House Bill 646, which somewhat mirrored SB 134, was sponsored last year by State Representatives Richard Brown and Gary Scherer, but was introduced too late in session to be completed.
Gardner said he’s pleased Gavarone has taken on the issue. “This is one of the most important things, is for constituents to understand that elected officials are doing everything they can to keep their children safe,” he said.
Gavarone isn’t certain when SB 134 may be enacted but said improper passing is a growing issue that must be addressed.
“I’ve been receiving overwhelming support,” she said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.