By Lawrence Nzuve and Jason Lee
In New York State an estimated 35,000 motorist illegally passed stopped school buses on February 10, according to a survey released early this month by the New York Association for Pupil Transportation (NYAPT).
The survey includes 29 participating school districts and over 1000 bus drivers. The number of passes reported is used to estimate the total number of illegal passes state-wide.
When a school bus stops to drop of students, a red light arm is extended signaling drivers coming from both directions to stop. It is illegal to pass the bus while the red light arm is extended.
“Thirty years ago when I was a bus driver somebody passed my red lights and one of my kindergartners was hit,” Longwood School District Transportation Coordinator Gale Winsper said. “For me it’s a big deal.”
There is currently a proposed bill in the State Legislature that would allow New York State buses to be equipped with red light cameras that would provide video of drivers as they pass the bus illegally. “For whatever reason [the legislation] doesn’t seem to be going anywhere,” Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning said.
“While school bus safety is our number one priority, we do not support the bill in its current form,” Michael Martucci, owner of Quality Bus Service and president of the New York State Bus association said.
“We need to make sure that there is a mechanism that allows school districts to compensate private school bus contractors for any cost associated with the implementation of these red-light-type stop arm cameras.” Martucci said. “The bill is not clear on this and other important items.”
Without a specified mechanism, private bus companies could not re-negotiate contracts with school Districts to add the cost of the cameras. Some schools would have to wait five years for a chance to add funding.
“My local State Legislators Assemblymen Fred Thiele and Dean Murray are looking at trying to do a pilot program in Suffolk County,” Browning said.
This pilot program would put cameras on buses in participating districts without legislation and allow them to collect video that the Department of Motor Vehicles can use to send out warning notices to violators.
The letters people receive from the DMV are just warnings not actual law enforcement. They don’t require offenders to pay any fines or respond at all.
Data from a pilot program can’t be used to issue tickets without legislation but it can be used to demonstrate the need for cameras, and help a law get passed in the State Legislature.
A pilot program like this is already active in the Longwood school district.
“The bus company looks at [the video]. Vehicles they can identify that have passed the bus that they can get the license plate of, they send that to the DMV,” Winsper said. “The DMV sends them a letter saying they were spotted passing a school bus. We know that has happened because we got a call from a parent saying ‘I got a letter from the DMV.”
“It is a high priority for the Suffolk County Police Department,” Officer William Gibaldi of the 6th Precinct Cope unit said. We do enforce it very strictly.”
However, the SCPD could not say how frequently reports for this offense get written.
“If we can’t get [legislation] passed in the state, I’m willing to put in a homeroom message for Suffolk County to allow Suffolk County school bus companies and school districts to put red light cameras on the buses” Browning said. “Hopefully we can get that done this year.”
Nine states have already passed State-wide laws allowing for the use of exterior school bus cameras according to the Transportation National Conference of State Legislatures. Connecticut and Georgia were first in 2011, and Alabama was the most recent state in last year’s legislative session. New York is still pending but with the Suffolk County Pilot project coming sometime in 2016 a Legislative decision is sure to follow.
“People who pass these school buses are not criminals. They could be your relatives. They could be your next door neighbor,” said Winsper. “People need to pay attention out there to make sure kids are not in danger.”