Tim Henderson, Stateline
February 2, 2024
In December, a mom on Long Island, New York, watched her young daughter get onto a school bus, then had to jump out of the way when a car came speeding past on the shoulder. That same month in Minnesota, a child leaving his school bus had to run to avoid being hit by a pickup truck.
Drivers nationwide continue to barrel illegally past stopped school buses, endangering children and caregivers — and sometimes worse. But some states have found it hard to enforce relatively new laws allowing on-board bus camera systems that record the violations.
Recent deaths during school bus stops include those of a parent and student in separate Texas crashes last year and of a high school student in Pennsylvania in 2022. They highlight continued careless driving around school buses despite flashing stop signs and obvious camera lenses. The recklessness may be part of a pattern of more aggressive driving noted by authorities that has caused more traffic deaths despite fewer miles driven overall since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A survey of school bus drivers last year, conducted by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, estimated 242,000 vehicles illegally passed school buses in a single day. That was up from the 232,000 estimate for 2019. That year, seven states passed laws to allow automatic camera surveillance to catch suspected violators.
Almost half of states have such laws now. Massachusetts and Oregon considered, but didn’t pass, similar legislation last year. A school bus camera program in Bridgeport, Connecticut, was held up last year amid debates in the state legislature over the size of fines and their impact on low-income communities.
But there are several reasons why enforcement might not have been as effective as intended.
Some safety authorities object to new camera laws that reduced fines and excluded license points and other more punitive actions allowed when the same violations are caught in person by law enforcement. Legislatures may have softened school bus penalties to gain consensus among skeptical lawmakers, authorities say.
Some states also are struggling with the limitations of cameras when it comes to enforcing laws requiring evidence police officers can see in person but cameras might not catch. The cameras might not show school bus markings mentioned in the law or whether students are actively getting on or off buses. Another technical issue: School bus cameras have flagged cars on different streets or in lanes separated by medians, where they’re not legally required to stop.
How it works
Typically, the automatic cameras are engaged when a bus driver turns on a flashing stop sign, triggering a computer program that detects violations and sends them to reviewers to check before mailing a violation notice. But the cameras can’t capture everything.
On New York’s Long Island, a state appeals court threw out a $250 ticket in November, saying evidence from bus cameras isn’t enough to prove a violation. Judges on the court said the camera did not establish that the school bus had correct markings or that it was actively picking up or dropping off passengers at the time of the ticket. That decision could endanger $25 million in annual fines from one county alone if other tickets are struck down.
In Pittsburgh, a district court judge told Stateline he dismisses most cases based on school bus cameras for insufficient evidence from the cameras.
Judge James Motznik said he also objects to the way Pennsylvania’s law, like most state laws allowing automatic camera evidence to identify bus-passing violations, undermines a traffic law that’s more punitive. The camera violations are issued as “civil complaints” with a lower fine and no loss of license points as required by the original traffic law against passing a stopped school bus.
“It was sold as a deterrent to enhance public safety,” Motznik said. “But it’s actually less of a deterrent. If a police officer witnessed this, there’d be a $500 fine, a license suspension, points toward losing your license. A camera sees the same thing, it’s $300 and goodbye.”
State legislatures sometimes have used less-punitive fines, without license points or suspensions, as a bargaining chip to reach agreement on camera enforcement such as school bus cameras, said Russ Martin, senior director of policy and government relations for the Governors Highway Safety Association.
“The thought was like, ‘We can make this more accepted by the public.’” Martin said. “But there’s another side to it. In some ways the points are more important than the fines for the worst violators — it means you can’t just pay your way out.”
Pennsylvania’s law on school bus cameras was updated last year partly to allow a lower-cost way for motorists to contest tickets, using a state hearing officer in a free process instead of a court that requires filing fees, said Jennifer Kuntch, a spokesperson for the state transportation department. Pittsburgh schools recorded more than 9,000 violations since the bus camera program began in July, the district announced last month.
“You can’t allow people to endanger children like that, and you can’t call out the National Guard to watch every school bus at every stop.” – Paul Sabatino, former counsel for the Suffolk County, N.Y., Legislature
On Long Island, the appeals court decision against the red-light camera evidence endangers not only Suffolk County’s program, which receives the $25 million in fine revenue a year, but also nearby Nassau County, where a class-action lawsuit is underway on behalf of 132,000 drivers with similar fines.
The appeals court ruling was vexing for local governments, said Paul Sabatino, an attorney and former Suffolk County legislative counsel. Cameras are a necessary part of enforcing the law against passing stopped school buses, he said.
“You can’t allow people to endanger children like that, and you can’t call out the National Guard to watch every school bus at every stop,” Sabatino said.
Many school districts use contractors such as Virginia-based BusPatrol, which claims 90% of the market for school bus cameras, with some competition from others such as RedSpeed USA and American Bus Video. The companies may include school bus stop-arm cameras within a package of other automated traffic enforcement.
Justin Meyers, president of BusPatrol, said the company already has addressed evidence questions in New York state by adding to its “evidence packets” the school bus markings and maps showing the bus is on an established route. Suffolk County is the company’s biggest customer, and BusPatrol has made a $40 million investment in equipping school buses there, Meyers said in an interview. It also operates in Pittsburgh.
The company uses computer algorithms and artificial intelligence to detect violations, which are then screened for accuracy by a BusPatrol employee before going to local law enforcement for a final decision on whether to issue a violation notice, Meyers said.
Few statistics available
There are few statistics on the extent of deaths and injuries from passing stopped school buses. Pennsylvania reviewed crash records at Stateline’s request and said 12 such crashes occurred in 2022 and 13 in 2021, with one death in each year — one a student, one a parent — and 23 injuries across both years. Those figures include a crash that killed a 16-year-old high school student in November 2022 as she was trying to board a school bus in York County.
Across the country, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found 53 fatalities, half of them school-age children, between 2000 and 2021 in accidents involving illegal passing of a school bus, according to an analysis requested by Stateline.
In Minnesota, school districts can apply for state funds to install school bus cameras. The Edina school district sought money last year after an “alarming” increase in bus-passing violations reported by bus drivers, along with two injuries to students, according to a press account in the local Sun Current newspaper. The district won $105,000 for cameras, a cost of about $4,000 per bus, and in January reported drivers had been ticketed for 70% of passing violations noticed by bus drivers, up from 5% without cameras.
In one of the Texas fatalities last year, a woman helping her child onto a bus in Upshur County was killed by a vehicle passing the bus, Sgt. Adam Albritton, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety, told Stateline. The crash was reported, a driver was charged with manslaughter, and police are reviewing footage from a video camera on the bus for evidence, Albritton said.
Texas was an early adopter of video cameras to catch school bus passing violations, commissioning a 2008 study on such cameras. The state did not include school bus cameras in its ban on automated traffic enforcement in 2019. Not all school districts participate, but Austin, Dallas and San Antonio are among those that do.
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