DES MOINES — Kadyn Halverson's death could save another child's life.
The 7-year-old rural Kensett, Iowa, girl died last May when a speeding driver failed to stop for her as she was crossing the road to get on her school bus.
The Iowa Senate voted unanimously Thursday for a bill named after Kadyn that would beef up penalties on motorists who don't stop for a school bus with its red lights flashing and stop arm extended. Legislative leaders predicted that the bill will be sent to Gov. Terry Branstad and signed into law.
"I was thinking about Kadyn and how many children she's going to be helping with this," said Kadyn's mother, Kari Halverson, her tears flowing after witnessing the Senate's 47-0 passage of the legislation.
Lawmakers' emotions ran high too.
"We cannot begin to understand your pain," state Sen. Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge, told Halverson. "My parents have four boys and buried two of them. The natural, normal course of events is to bury your parents, not your children.
"What I have seen here is a marvelous example of turning pain and tragedy into something useful, to help prevent further deaths and injuries such as Kadyn's."
In a single day last year, almost 112,000 bus drivers in 28 states reported motorists illegally passing their buses a total of 37,756 times, according to a survey by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, which advocates on school transportation issues. The buses were stopped and displaying flashing red lights and stop arms.
In Iowa, 2,295 school buses recorded 327 such incidents one day last May. The drivers in the vast majority of those cases passed the stopped buses on the left, where the stop arm was extended.
"One of the problems with school bus safety is that this happens far too often in Iowa, in our communities and across the country," said State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, the bill's Senate floor manager.
"That is unacceptable. We have this law for a reason. It's to keep our children safe."
Iowa law requires motorists to slow down to no more than 20 mph when a school bus is flashing its amber warning lights, and come to a complete stop when a school bus stop arm is extended.
Under the Senate bill, the current Iowa fine of $200 with no possibility of jail time for a school bus passing violation would be increased to a fine of up to $675 and up to 30 days in jail for a first offense. Second offenses would bring a fine of up to $1,875 and up to a year in prison.
Motorists would face even stiffer penalties if they caused serious injury or death, including an additional fine and a driver's license suspension of up to 180 days. The bill also calls for a study and public education campaign on other ways to keep students safe.
"Nothing that you have to do is more important than a child's life," Halverson said. "There's just nothing out there that's more important than that. Be late for work, be late for your doctor's appointment. Stop for those school buses."
Iowa's law is the seventh-most-lenient in the nation in terms of fines, consequences and license suspensions for people who don't stop for school buses, said Kim Koenigs of Osage, Iowa, whose daughters were friends of Kadyn's. Koenigs said higher fines would make people think twice.
Kadyn was struck by a pickup truck in May while trying to cross the road to board a school bus in north-central Iowa's Worth County. She died instantly.
Investigators said the truck was going 61 mph and the driver did not heed the flashing red lights and stop arm on the bus.
"Still, in a way, I think I'm kind of in denial," said Halverson, who — along with her friends and family — has been a prominent force at the Capitol, wearing bright pink T-shirts bearing Kadyn's picture. "Some days I just don't believe it's happened to us. Some days are just really hard, because I know that it's us that it happened to."
Aaron Gunderson, 32, of Northwood, Iowa, the driver of the pickup that hit Kadyn, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide by reckless driving. He was sentenced in January to 15 years in prison — the maximum penalty — as requested by the Halverson family. Gunderson must serve a minimum of seven years before he is eligible for parole.
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