As we head back into another school year, I thought it would be a great time to update you on changes made to Iowa code regarding passing stopped school buses. Seven year old Kadyn Halverson of rural Worth County crossed the road to get on her school bus on the morning of May 10, 2011. She never made it. She was struck and killed by a driver who ignored the flashing lights and stop sign on the bus and fled the scene. He was later apprehended and ultimately convicted of vehicular homicide, reckless driving and leaving the scene of a personal injury accident. He received a sentence of 15 years.
This tragedy prompted Kadyn’s family to lobby for increased penalties for violating school bus laws. In 2012, lawmakers responded to the incident with changes to the law. A bill, ultimately named “Kadyn’s Law,” increased penalties for drivers who fail to obey bus safety laws. The bill also required a study, Department of Transportation (DOT) rules for enhanced driver license discipline, greater emphasis on bus safety in driver education, and a public education program.
Now, four years after adoption it has been revealed convictions under Kadyn’s Law are down when compared to those under the prior, more forgiving law. Before 2012 drivers violating school bus safety laws received a scheduled fine. This means the driver was issued a traffic ticket with a $200 fine.
The new law increased the penalty to a simple misdemeanor with fines ranging from $250-$675. The increase from scheduled fine to a simple misdemeanor was significant. It requires a court appearance and can result in up to 30 days in jail. Penalties are increased for a second or subsequent offense to a serious misdemeanor with up to a year in jail and fines ranging from $315-$1,825.
The increased penalties have resulted in fewer convictions despite an increase in reports of violations. In 2012 there were 1,030 convictions. That dropped to 895 in 2015. Due to the stiff penalties, drivers are more likely to fight the charge in court and prosecutors are more likely to cut a plea deal.
Trials are expensive and time consuming, and prosecutors have limited resources. Many choose to cut plea deals on minor crimes to concentrate resources on those more serious. Because school bus law violations have been raised to the status of a misdemeanor crime rather than a scheduled violation, contesting a ticket takes a trial. Bus drivers make notoriously bad witnesses due to their obligation to the safety of children first. They frequently mix up license numbers and suspect descriptions. They are not trained to be witnesses for traffic violations (like police officers are) and thus the deck is stacked in favor of the defense. Thus, many prosecutors make plea deals rather than risk losing at trial.
Suggested changes such as cameras on busses and more training for drivers are not without cost. These costs are currently borne by local school districts. The safety of Iowa students should be the priority if any changes are made to this law.