** See prior coverage in the player above.
[Editor’s note: This article has been clarified to remove citation statistics for the city of Lakewood, whose school district does not operate buses.]
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WJW) — School bus drivers who see motorists illegally passing them can report their license plate numbers to the police — but in practicality, that can be difficult.
A state lawmaker instead wants to discourage overly hasty drivers and make sure their plates are caught on camera so they can face a new $300 civil penalty.
A previous version of the bill to double the state’s maximum $500 fine to $1,000 saw unanimous passage in the Senate, but never saw a House vote. The current iteration also appears to have stalled since it was introduced a year and a half ago.
Several local municipalities have upped their penalties beyond the state statute — even added the potential for jail time.
More than 1,500 vehicles were spotted illegally passing school buses across Ohio on just one day in March 2019, which was the last time the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services asked bus drivers to survey.
That includes about 30 cars that passed on the right, where children get on and off the bus. There were about 400 cars that passed buses from behind, the survey shows.
Based on what Doug Palmer is hearing from bus drivers, those inpatient motorists are still out there making bus stops unsafe every day.
“It’s very common but what is difficult is the prosecution of it,” said Palmer, the Ohio School Board Association’s senior transportation consultant. “Law enforcement do go out and investigate and cite, but prosecution usually falls short.”
Since 2020, the Ohio State Highway Patrol has issued 1,268 citations statewide for illegally passing school buses. There were only eight in Cuyahoga County, presumably due to wide local police coverage.
Cleveland police have ticketed 22 drivers under the city’s school bus-passing ordinance since then; Shaker Heights had 10 citations; Beachwood and Parma each had seven.
Changing drivers’ behavior
Under a pending bill from state Sen. Theresa Gavarone, of Bowling Green, R-2nd, school buses could be equipped with cameras to catch more drivers who overtake stopped school buses.
Senate Bill 23, the School Bus Safety Act, is a revision of a bill Gavarone introduced in 2020, during the last general assembly: Senate Bill 134. That bill would have upped the state’s maximum fine from $500 to $1,000, stepped up penalties if drivers were caught doing it again and created new felony offenses if others are hurt or killed by a driver passing a school bus.
It also would have allowed bus cameras to be used for criminal prosecution, which could have drawn the same constitutional challenges that red-light cameras have faced — since running red lights and illegally passing a school bus are both misdemeanors. A common defense from those accused could be: “That’s my car — but how can you prove I was driving?”
The problem is neither of those cameras are expected to have a police officer nearby who can swear to the charge, said C. Randolph Keller, Shaker Heights’ chief prosecutor.
“When you think of all the complex litigation that surrounded the cameras in that context, you can extrapolate anyone trying to defend [against] one of those tickets would go to those same arguments,” he told FOX 8.
Though the 2020 bill passed unanimously in Gavarone’s chamber in February 2020, it fizzled out almost as soon as it got to the House’s Criminal Justice Committee. The new bill changes tack, instead creating a new civil penalty.
“It’s something that certainly needs discussion,” Gavarone told FOX 8. “We want to make sure at the end of the day we’re getting it right. Since it didn’t go anywhere in the House, we kind of switched strategies. We’re really looking at ways to change drivers’ behavior.”
What the School Bus Safety Act would do
SB 23 would set a new $300 civil penalty for instances where cars are caught illegally passing a school bus, but their drivers can’t be identified. Of that revenue, $250 would go toward the school district. Another $25 would go to the police department that issued the ticket. The remaining $25 would go into a new fund for school bus safety and education, Gavarone said.
If drivers can be identified, they’ll be criminally prosecuted instead, she said.
“As I was researching this bill … several bus drivers told me it happens almost daily. They just don’t have the evidence to prosecute,” Gavarone said. “This legislation would hopefully capture all those violations.
“What better way to curb and change driver behavior than to make sure people know they’re going to get a ticket every single time?” she said.
Gavarone’s bill would also designate the month of August — when most kids are beginning the new school year — as School Bus Safety Awareness Month.
There have been 6,200 vehicle crashes involving school buses reported in the state since 2017, according to an August bulletin from the Ohio State Highway Patrol, including more than 1,200 in the patrol district that includes Cuyahoga, Stark, Summit and Lorain counties.
Cuyahoga County has had about 530, the third-most crashes among Ohio’s 88 counties since 2017, according to the patrol.
Though Gavarone’s bill was re-introduced in the Senate in January 2021, the first month of this current general assembly, it has seen little-to-no action. Gavarone is the only sponsor, and it’s only gotten one introductory hearing in committee.
Gavarone said state lawmakers now have a “really busy” agenda for this lame-duck session before the November general elections decide on a new general assembly to be seated next year.
“I don’t really know what the path is going to be right now. Certainly, it’s something we need to continue,” she said. “I want to keep working on just every way we can to protect our children.”