COLUMBUS (WKBN) – Last Monday started out like any other for fourth grader James Mahlman. He got up, ate his breakfast and his dad dropped him off at his grandmother’s, where the school bus picks him up.
James waits patiently on the side of State Route 235 for his bus to arrive and when it does, he waits for the driver to wave him over as he has to cross the road to get on the bus.
But last Monday, when his bus arrived and the flashing lights were turned on, he saw his driver make a motion with her arm.
According to James’ mother, his younger brother, Blake, would have darted out into the road, eager to get on the bus. James is much better at being attentive and looking both ways.
She believes that’s what saved his life.
Just as James was about to step out onto SR 235, he saw a truck hauling a trailer coming up behind the bus. He also saw it wasn’t slowing down.
“The only thing I thought at the time was, ‘I better step back, he isn’t stopping,'” James said.
Sure enough, that truck blew past the bus despite the multiple warning signs not to do so.
Had 9-year-old James or his little brother been in the street at the time, they could have been hit and likely killed.
This is another example of what school officials say is a seemingly growing problem. According to Jay Smith, with the Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA), 183 school districts returned a survey conducted on a single day last March.
Smith said the results of what happened are staggering.
Of the nearly 5,000 drivers that completed the survey, 1,500 buses were illegally passed on that day alone.
The data was broken down further:
-45% were illegally passed in the morning and 52% in the afternoon.
– 73% of the buses were passed by someone approaching the front of the bus. The remaining 27% were passed from behind.
– 98% of the buses were passed on the left side of the bus and 2% were passed on the right side of the bus, where the door to get on and off is located.
The OSBA estimates if this rate is standard, an average of 4,500 school buses are illegally passed daily in Ohio.
State Senator Theresa Gavarone is proposing a bill that would increase penalties for people who illegally pass a school bus. It would also provide money to school districts so they can maintain or invest in equipment to capture images of those violators’ license plates.
The bus that picks James up has a camera system. Unfortunately, it was malfunctioning the day he was almost hit. This irritates his mother, Katie Mahlman.
“You know, I’m not naïve,” she said. “I know technology fails. You put it in one day and it’s outdated the next, and I know that there’ money issues, technology is expensive. So I know that there’s other underlying factors when it comes to that but if you’re telling the public, parents and taxpayers that there are cameras on the bus, they expect them to be working and that’s what irritates me right now. I don’t have anybody to hold accountable for what they did.”
Still, Mahlman and her family are supportive of the bill because they believe it will help protect kids.
Another family was at Wednesday’s hearing and addressed lawmakers.
Brittany Robertson’s 11-year-old daughter, Lizzie, was killed two weeks ago while crossing the street to get to her school bus stop.
Lizzie’s funeral was Tuesday and the pain is still fresh for her mother. She was overcome with emotion when she took to the podium to address lawmakers.
Lizzie’s grandmother, Audrey Napier, stepped in and expressed what the family was hoping lawmakers would do.
“It’s very hard for us. It’s a very emotional time for us and we support this bill because we want our children to be safe,” she said.
After the hearing, the family expressed surprise about the numbers shared by the OSBA and disgust that drivers could be so careless.
“It’s imperative that people understand that it’s important to be responsible as drivers,” Napier said. “To pay attention to the stop signs, to pay attention to the school crossings. These are our children that are crossing these streets. It is our obligation to protect them. We need stiffer penalties. People need to be held accountable and maybe if the penalties were stiffer, people might take a second thought at flying by a school bus.”
Gavarone’s bill would also designate August as School Bus Safety Awareness month — something both families support fully.
Next on tap for the bill will be an opportunity for opponents and interested parties to testify on its merits. Gavarone did not have a date set as of Wednesday morning, but said she is pushing to get this legislation moving as quickly as possible.
If it clears the Senate Transportation, Workforce and Commerce Committee and the Ohio Senate chamber, it will have to go through this process again in the Ohio House of Representatives.