They’re big, they’re lumbering, and if you get stuck behind one your travel time increases. School buses are on the road again and grumbling drivers are right behind them. Most drivers adapt. Others are in too big a hurry to stop. They break the law. They pass the bus picking up or dropping off children, and gamble that the chances they will get caught are slim.
It’s not a serious problem. Traveling by school bus remains by far the safest way to take children to and from school. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 58 percent of fatalities involving students during school hours take place with teen-agers driving. Another 23 percent of student fatalities take place with adults driving. Just 1 percent of fatalities involve travel by school bus. More specifically, some 450,000 public school buses travel 4.3 billion miles a year, transporting 23.5 million children to and from school and school-related activities. On average, 20 school-age children die each year in school bus-related crashes or incidents. Five are injured inside the bus, five are struck by other vehicles, and ten are struck by the school bus itself. So other drivers causing Injury are the exception, not the rule.
Over an 11-year period in Florida (from 1999 to 2010), four students pedestrian have been killed by a vehicle illegally passing a stopped school bus, according to the Florida Department of Education. That’s out of almost 300,000 school bus stops in the state, and 15,000 school buses operating daily.
“In Flagler County we have been fortunate,” said Brian Preece, director of transportation for the Flagler County School district. The county’s buses navigate 1,100 bus stops, 85 routes and 8,000 miles of travel a day on local roads. Last year the district established a transportation specialist position to visit existing bus stops, take photos and observe spots that residents have complained about as being unsafe. “It’s time consuming but if it helps avoid a potential safety issue it’s worth it. We attempt to alleviate residents concerns that range from bus stop locations to children’s behavior.”
Nevertheless, Florida is looking to police drivers around school buses further, using the questionable method of automated cameras that cities like Palm Coast use to punish red-light runners. The effectiveness of those cameras is in dispute, as is their legality. Some cities are removing them. Others, like Palm Coast, are expanding their use, because they’re an easy and lucrative way to make money. Florida law has enabled them, because the state gets more than 50 percent of the cut from every single violation that sticks.
In 2011 and 2012, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington enacted measures allowing school districts to install cameras outside school buses. Arkansas, North Carolina, and West Virginia already had such allowances on the books. Earlier this year Florida lawmakers tried to enact a similar law. The law was easily approved by two Senate subcommittees before dying ion a third. It didn’t get as far in the Florida House.
Lobbying the Florida Legislature
It’s not the end of it. Lobbied by the private companies that make and run the cameras—and profit handsomely from them—Florida transportation officials are still looking to bring the scheme to the state. The sweetener: school districts could cash in on the scheme. The bill that was considered earlier this year would have doubled fines generated by cameras on school buses, to $265, and allowed school districts to take $170 of that (which they would then presumably split with the camera company, as Palm Coast does). Another $15 would go to the local sheriff, thus enticing sheriff’s departments to lobby for the scheme, too. The state department of motor vehicles and the Emergency Medical Services Trust Fund would get a $15 and $65 cut, respectively.
Bill French is assistant director of transportation for the Volusia County School district and chairman of the state committee looking into the viability of cameras being installed on the extended stop arms. These cameras are being tested in five Central Florida Counties. “We are looking at and hoping to get legislation passed to allow cameras to be placed on the stop arm. The cameras would record traffic activity to the front and the back of the bus,” French said.
The test cameras are just that for now, recording data only. No tickets were issued. From March 22 to June 8 five school districts each had one bus out of their fleet equipped with a stop arm camera. The number of days of installation varied, some having them installed days before the end of the school year.
The cameras produced the following results:
- Volusia County: installed for 58 days – 47 enforceable violations.
- Osceola County: installed for 9 days – 35 enforceable violations.
- Orange County: installed for 3 days – 14 enforceable violations.
- Broward County: installed for 10 days – 10 enforceable violations.
- Brevard County: installed for 8 days – 32 enforceable violations.
It’s the sort of data that can be dangled before lawmakers as seemingly compelling evidence to add the cameras, even though, in context, the infractions may not be serious—nor do they necessarily equate to serious dangers around school buses, as the extremely low incidence of accidents and injuries to students riding buses indicates.
“If it comes up again representatives from the company, school districts and law enforcement will probably speak to the benefits,” French said. French realizes that the cameras raise privacy issues. Red-light spy cameras, now proliferating in Palm Coast, are alternately loved and reviled by residents. If school-bus cameras become a similar kind of means to track and punish traffic violators, they are just as likely to provoke a backlash. “This only includes the area around the school bus,” French said. “The camera only records when the arm is extended and then only on the side of the bus.”
Between Enforcement and Automation
Enforcing the laws is difficult unless an officer happens to be on the scene, something these drivers know all too well. “Sometimes the cameras inside the bus pick up activity outside the bus and if the bus driver makes a complaint to the sheriff’s department, they will typically contact the driver of the vehicle,” Preece said. Buses are also equipped with GPS devices that track a bus’s speed and location at specific times, providing an added measure of oversight.
Different companies that provide this type of camera are being reviewed. Some pay for the equipment rather than charging the school district up front, but would get a cut from the revenue generated by violations. That’s the same arrangement companies like American Traffic Solutions, which runs the spy cameras in Palm Coast, float before local government boards to win their contracts.
“My goal is not to purchase any at this time,” French said. “It’s seamless to school district. The camera captures the event, the company validates the infraction and sends it to local law enforcement for further validation.”
Drivers receive the ticket in the mail and have the opportunity to challenge the findings. Some companies that offer drivers the opportunity to view the camera footage for themselves online with a special password that is exclusively for the driver’s viewing.
Preece realizes it’s inconvenient when drivers end up behind a bus stopping to pick up and drop off children. “We have gone a long way in eliminating frequent stops. The state says not less than 200 feet between stops and we’re going beyond that,” Preece said. But while drivers need to obey the law, Preece said it’s important to have children take a role in their safety. To this end Preece is hoping to establish an awareness program in schools in the future.
“We want the children to be proactive and to be aware when going to their stops,” he said. “Morning hours are typically darker. Children should wear light or bright colored jackets, bright yellow and orange work well and they can take them off when they get to the bus or school.”
Preece recalled one woman who called insisting the location of a bus stop was unsafe. The stop was examined online. Nothing indicated the stop was unsafe. But seeing it on the ground was a different story. “I personally went out to the bus stop and watched the bus stop on the edge of a curve,” Preece said. “The speed limit is 35 mph but people were coming around the curve at 45 and 50 and slamming on their brakes. It was something the computer didn’t show but by going out and personally seeing it made the difference.”
“It’s difficult to move an established stop because we have to notify 60 or so parents. But if it’s a safety issue or creating a hardship for the owner we do what we can.”
For those who ignore stopped buses Preece had this question: “For one more minute in your day why would you risk injuring or killing a child?”
Last week in Mebourne, an 18-year-old girl crashed her SUV in the back of a school bus that was stopped, with its lights flashing, while picking up children. There were 22 students on the bus. In May, a similar accident took place in Palm Coast, in White View Parkway, where a Flagler County school bus with 33 children on board was stopped at a light. It was rammed by a 29-year-old driver’s Galant. No one was injured. On Friday, just across the Florida border–in Brantley County, in southern Georgia–a 17-year-old boy was killed when his truck collided with a school bus. That crash is still under investigation.
It’s certainly not always other drivers’ fault. Bus drivers, too, cause their share of wrecks. In March in Fort Pierce, a truck carrying sod collided with a school bus, killing a 9-year-old student and injuring several others, some of whom were ejected through the back door of the bus. But the Florida Highway Patrol’s investigation found that the bus driver was inattentive in that crash. In June, two teens in an SUV were seriously injured when they collided with a St. Johns County school bus, but in that case, too, the bus driver was at fault. In both cases the bus drivers violated the other drivers’ right of way.
Bus stop facts and fines:
Vehicles must be completely stopped anytime a school bus is idle with its lights flashing and stop arm extended. The only exception is on a divided highway, where traffic in the opposite lanes can proceed if the lanes are separated by a raised median, unpaved area or barrier. Vehicles following and approaching the school bus must stop. Motorists should remained stopped until flashing lights go out on the bus and its stop arm is retracted. Bus driver may be waiting for children to cross or clear roadway. Penalties for violations range from cash fines to suspension of one’s drivers license. Passing on the left brings a $165 fine, plus four points against the driver’s license and required attendance at a driver-improvement course. A repeat offense additionally brings a license suspension from 90 days to six months. Passing on the right where children enter or exit buses brings more-severe penalties, including a $265 fine and mandatory court hearing in addition to the driver-course requirement. Repeat offenses add license suspension for 180 days to one year. Injuring a child could bring more severe punishment. A woman whose license previously had been revoked was sentenced to 13 years in prison after she hit and killed an Orange County student getting off a bus.–Source: Florida motor-vehicle laws