The state board that sets safety standards for Indiana school buses can authorize the use of an extra-long stop arm that extends into oncoming traffic, according to Attorney General Curtis Hill Jr.
A school bus stop arm typically opens outward 18 inches from the side of a school bus. The extended stop arm, already in use in other states, sticks out between 4 1/2 to 6 1/2 feet to essentially block vehicles from illegally passing the bus.
Hill writes in his official opinion — which does not have the force of law but generally is respected by courts — that while state and federal regulations set various specifications for school bus stop arms, neither limit the length of the device.
"Thus, it is permissible to install and use an 'extended' (or longer than usual) arm signal device," Hill said.
In addition, Hill said because it is illegal to pass a stopped school bus while it is picking up or dropping off students, a motorist who strikes an extended stop arm is liable for any resulting damage to his or her vehicle, the bus or any other people and property.
"But for the driver of a motor vehicle's violation of the law, no property damage or personal injury would have occurred," Hill said.
"The area in which the arm signal device extends is a restricted area for all traffic. No one may pass a school bus in either direction when the arm signal device is extended."
Hill's opinion was jointly requested by Michael Mentzel, chairman of the Indiana State School Bus Committee, and Michael LaRocco, director of transportation at the Indiana Department of Education.
They did not indicate that the school bus committee is on the verge of authorizing extended stop arms on Hoosier school buses.
Hill noted in his official opinion, however, that the device is "gaining interest in Indiana."
Last year, three Fulton County children were killed, and one was injured, as they were boarding their school bus, when a motorist allegedly drove around the bus with its stop arm extended and struck the children as they were crossing the street.
Hoosier lawmakers since have increased the criminal and civil penalties for passing a school bus with its stop arm extended.
They've also authorized county and city governments to fund school bus cameras to record illegal passing, using revenue generated by fines for stop arm violations.