MALCOLM, Neb. — Don Karnopp stopped his bus, activated the flashing lights and stop arm and opened the door for the two young boys waiting in their driveway, as he does every morning on U.S. Highway 34, a busy commuter artery northwest of Lincoln.
He checked his mirrors and prepared to motion to the boys — a fifth-grader and a first-grader — to board the bus.
Then a westbound car blew past Karnopp on the right shoulder, maneuvering between the open doors of the bus and the boys standing in the driveway.
"Thank God I hadn't quite motioned them on yet, because if they had come, (the driver) would've wiped them both out," Karnopp said. "We would've found them a half-mile up the road."
He estimated that the driver was going 45 to 50 mph.
A rattled Karnopp, who has driven for the Malcolm Public Schools for 14 years, finished his route and reported the close call to administrators, who forwarded the complaint to the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office.
A few days later, at the same location, an eastbound car smashed into the back of a truck that had stopped for Karnopp's bus.
That was about three weeks ago.
"You envision those things, and it's going through your head, 'What could've happened?'" Karnopp, 70, said. "You relive it for quite a while, and I still do."
What happened to Karnopp isn't uncommon. Bus drivers report being passed illegally several times a week, based on checks with area school districts.
But such violations get little attention from the public, transportation officials say, and law enforcement officials rarely issue tickets.
Bills have been introduced in both the Nebraska and Iowa Legislatures to strengthen penalties for ignoring the bus signals.
Officials say the fact that buses are by far the safest way for students to get to school obscures their message that a problem exists.
Each year, 12 students nationwide are killed getting on or off school buses — far fewer than are killed when riding in cars and on bicycles. About 39,000 K-12 public school students in Nebraska and more than 117,000 Iowa students ride buses, according to industry statistics.
"The reality is, it's a major, major problem from our perspective," said Bob Riley, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. "But from an enforcement and legislative perspective, it doesn't seem to be because the kids on the bus are so safe."
The driver who passed Karnopp wasn't ticketed. Karnopp couldn't catch the license plate number or clearly identify the vehicle.
Lancaster County Deputy Joe Gehr, a resource officer for the Malcolm schools, staked out the site the next day but didn't see a car that matched the vague description he had been given.
For the most part, an officer must see a car illegally pass a bus to write a ticket.
If a bus driver reports the plate number and the vehicle model, officers often follow up with the offending driver but don't issue a ticket.
Lancaster County hasn't issued any tickets for bus stop-arm violations in the past year.
"Until there's a tragedy, there won't be many people who break that law and then wake up," said Malcolm Superintendent Ryan Terwilliger.
Bus drivers in the Lincoln, Blair, Norris, Millard, Papillion and Bellevue school districts also have reported being passed illegally, according to transportation directors, bus service contractors and law enforcement officials. The Omaha school district hasn't had problems, said spokeswoman Luanne Nelson.
Nebraska Office of Highway Safety data show 74 convictions statewide in 2010 for drivers who passed school buses that had stopped to pick up or drop off children.
"It's not that this isn't a problem," said Tammie Hineline, a location safety manager for First Student Inc., a transportation contractor. Law enforcement officials just aren't enforcing the law, she said. "They're not backing up what's really going on."
Hineline said cars illegally pass First Student drivers daily, and the company forwards the reports to the Omaha Police Department.
"They're discouraged from feeling like they should even report it because nothing is going to happen," she said.
Omaha police wrote 11 tickets in 2011, while Lincoln police issued eight. Data weren't available from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.
The Sarpy County Sheriff's Office is in its third year working with the Millard and Gretna school districts to curb the illegal passing of buses. Lt. Russ Zeeb said officers try to visit every vehicle owner implicated in a report from a bus driver.
"I'd say it's made quite an impact," he said. "If we get a specific complaint, I'm going to put a patrol officer or someone there, and we're going to control the problem."
He didn't know how many tickets the county issued in the past year.
Under Nebraska law, a driver can be fined $100 to $500 and lose one driver's license point for the infraction.
State Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft has introduced legislation that would assess a flat fine of $500 and take three points off the violator's license. Brasch has asked Speaker Mike Flood of Norfolk to prioritize her bill to ensure that it gets debated before the legislative session ends in April.
In Iowa, the family of a 7-year-old who was hit by truck and killed last year while crossing the street to board a bus is pushing a bill that would replace the state's $200 fine with graduated penalties that reach as high as $7,500, a six-month license suspension and five years in jail for a third offense.
The bill is expected to be debated this week in committee.
Chuck Hall, the Blair Community Schools' transportation director, encouraged Brasch to sponsor Legislative Bill 1039.
Two years ago, Hall fielded 112 complaints from bus drivers who had cars zip around their stop arms. Last year, Hall received 173.
"We've had some near-misses on Highway 30," Hall said. "We had a driver who physically grabbed a student by the backpack and pulled him back on" to avoid a car, he said.
Hall has reworked bus routes away from the highways — buses don't stop on Nebraska Highway 133 at all anymore.
Like Karnopp, the Malcolm driver, Hall's drivers have been passed on the right.
Both Hall and Karnopp said people on the road are too distracted, and they need to put down their cellphones, bagels, makeup and whatever else they're preoccupied with when they're behind the wheel.
"Bottom line is, people are just not paying attention," Karnopp said. "They're in too big of a hurry, and they're not thinking about these kids' safety."
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