Catch Me If You Can

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A district in Fremont County, Wyoming recently installed video cameras on its school buses, inspired by the tragic 2011 death of an 11-year-old girl who was fatally struck by a motorist passing her stopped school bus. Officials said they are hoping the cameras will help reduce the number of “fly-bys.”

Other Wyoming school districts are installing stop-arm cameras now that a new state law requires all yellow buses to have them by the 2016-2017 school year.

The authors of NASDPTS’ annual National Stop Arm Violation Count, which tallied 75,966 vehicles that illegally passed school buses in 29 states this year, contend the survey data is crucial in not only increasing awareness of bus safety but also in prompting state legislation that will ward off more tragedies.

Co-author Charlie Hood, who is also executive director of NASDPTS, told STN that laws permitting photo enforcement have made a difference in states such as Georgia. This year Illinois and South Carolina are joining Wyoming with new legislation allowing authorities to use data from a school-bus video system to issue a ticket for stop-arm violations, bringing the total to 26 states.

Hood said he hopes more such laws will lead to more tickets and eventually fewer violations — and thus fewer incidents endangering children getting on and off the school bus.

While the news media reported that Georgia reported the highest number of illegal passes during the one-day count held last spring, the data tell a different story. The number of school bus drivers reporting in a given state is key when analyzing the  total number of passing violations. More than 97,000 school bus drivers participated in the 2014 count.

In Georgia, 12,444 bus drivers participated in this year’s survey and recorded 7,619 illegal passes. This translates into less than one violation observed per driver (0.6). Yet other states like California, Nebraska, Nevada and Texas reported a higher number of illegal passes than survey participants. California led the pack, with 5,164 drivers reporting 26,758 illegal passes — or more than five per driver. Texas averaged 1.1 passes observed per driver and Georgia, 1.6.

FACTORS BEHIND THE FIGURES

Twenty-six of the 29 states participating reported more illegal passes in the afternoon than in the morning, with the remaining three states (Idaho, Illinois and Minnesota) recording fairly equal numbers of morning and afternoon violations.

Florida and Texas had the highest number of right-side passes, which is particularly dangerous because students load and unload on that side. Florida’s 11,024 bus drivers counted 266 rightside passes, and Texas’ 8,477 drivers tallied 507. Washington State, by contrast, had half as many drivers participate (4,213) and they counted just 66 right-side passes.

This year 1,512 vehicles passed school buses on the right during count day, down from 1,780 in 2013. “The right-side numbers have gone down a bit, but I’m not sure there is any statistical significance,” Hood said. “Circumstances vary a lot. It can occur when drivers stop adjacent to a right turn lane.”

He explained that many variables contribute to the tendency toward illegal passing, including bus stop locations, roadway conditions, the number of lanes (multi-lane versus single-lane), bus mirrors, lighting systems and how many stop signs the bus displays.

“It’s difficult to point to any one cause because there are so many different things that contribute to the safety of the kids,” Hood added. “Obviously law enforcement is highly variable depending on where you go.”

This is especially true in states like Illinois and Wyoming, which both have photo enforcement laws in place yet are hindered by the lack of a statewide requirement specifying that photo evidence is all that is needed to issue tickets to violators.

“Across the state it’s not admissible as the only form of evidence, but we’re trying to gain some support,” said David Koselowski, Wyoming’s state director.

“The problem is it’s up to the municipality to decide that’s what we’re gong to accept. We have a couple that if you can’t positively identify the driver or it wasn’t witnessed by law enforcement, it didn’t happen,” he continued. “We can’t get a standard answer across the state: Here’s the picture, we accept it, we’ll move forward. We’re hoping that legislation will follow soon.”

The new law appropriated $5 million that school districts must use for stop-arm camera implementation by June 30, 2015. Koselowski estimated that a dozen or so school districts had these cameras installed before school started, and most of the state’s 1,500 school buses would have cameras on them by winter break.

“We have two districts in the state that fully support the photo evidence,” he shared. “I think for every picture they’ve produced, they’ve written a ticket.”

CHALLENGES OF ENFORCEMENT

Illinois state director Michael Slife said he is encouraged to see more school districts adopting stop-arm camera programs even though the new law there is also far from perfect. He said he hopes more cameras will lead to additional cities accepting photo evidence on its own merits.

“The way the law is written, there has to be an agreement between the municipality and the district and then, depending on the manufacturer of the stop-arm camera, who actually does the watching and the ticketing. All that has to be arranged ahead of time. So it will be kind of a slow takeoff,” said Slife. “Once a few districts get it done, they’ll probably piggyback off each other’s intergovernmental agreements, and it will take off a little quicker.”

He noted the new law seems to have encouraged more bus drivers to participate in the NASDPTS survey: 1,254 bus drivers in 2014 versus 310 in 2013.

With this year’s legislation, South Carolina also saw a huge jump in the number of school bus drivers participating: 1,822 compared to 83 in 2013.

“The state of South Carolina and (South Carolina Association of Pupil Transportation) have worked together to get the word out about the stop-arm law and the importance of the survey,” said Dino Teppara, Department of Education spokesperson.

He said he is certain the new law has enhanced awareness of school bus stop laws because of the influx of phone calls the department has received. He also credited the DOE’s new social media campaign with promoting bus safety.

“With the new state law banning texting while driving, we’ve started a proactive awareness campaign so people know it’s high time to avoid distractions while driving, especially with school buses back on the road,” he added.

So far five districts are running pilot stop-arm programs, while waiting for final direction from the South Carolina Highway Patrol, Teppara said.

“According to the NASDPTS data, 25 percent of South Carolina bus drivers, or fewer, reported illegal passes — we’d like to see that rate go up.”