Some Capital Region school districts have purchased school buses equipped with cameras used to capture evidence of drivers illegally passing a stopped school bus, and more are likely to follow.
Districts started purchasing replacement buses equipped with the cameras in anticipation of legislation that enables local municipalities, in agreement with school districts, to fine the owners of cars caught passing a school bus. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation into law Tuesday.
While the new law enables school districts to move ahead with installing the cameras or purchasing new buses already equipped with the cameras, they will also need to hash out agreements with local municipalities if they hope to accomplish anything with the cameras.
Towns, villages, cities and counties are tasked under the new law with leading the charge to utilize cameras that are installed beside the stop signs that swing out from a school bus while it is stopped picking up or dropping off students. The local municipalities must enter into an agreement with the school districts in their jurisdiction and cover the financial cost of installing and maintaining the cameras.
“It’s the municipality who decided whether to have stop-arm cameras, but they can’t do it unless they enter into agreement with the school district,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
The arrangements, though, could get complicated. School districts that cross multiple jurisdictions with law enforcement agencies would have to partner with multiple agencies to have authority to snap pictures throughout a bus route that may cross multiple town or county lines. And a county may have to adopt agreements with multiple school districts that fall within its jurisdiction. Details over how the camera footage will be stored and how violators will be identified will also need to be decided.
Groups that represent school district officials and local school boards said district administrators can take the lead in establishing discussions with their local governments if they are interested in using the new school bus cameras.
“If there is a school district that is interested in having the stop-arm cameras installed, it would be wise to have a conversation with the municipality, because at the end of the day the municipality is the one that is going to incur the cost,” said Al Marlin, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.
The local governments can use revenue collected from issuing tickets to violators who pass stopped buses to offset the cost of the cameras. The fines, levied against the owner of the car, start at $250 for a first violation, rising to $275 for a second violation and $300 for a third violation within 18 months of the first.
“It’s always a critical tool, any piece of video we can have to catch anyone,” said Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo.
The transportation department in the Shenendehowa Central School District has helped lead the push for legislation that would make it easier for districts to use cameras to gather evidence on illegal bus passes — until now, bus drivers have been serving as the key source of surveillance on illegal passing.
“Unfortunately, multiples times throughout the day, [drivers] would call in and have us jot down a license plate,” said Belinda Govich, a dispatcher and routing specialist for Shenendehowa. “They say: ‘It just passed my reds.’”
Govich, who also serves as vice president of the Capital Area chapter of the New York Association of Pupil Transportation, would then take down whatever information the driver could provide on the car that passed while the bus was stopped — a description of the car, a license plate number, the location of the incident. That information was then passed on to police.
The Shenendehowa transportation department also maintains a list of “hot spots,” bus stops where cars regularly pass a stopped school bus. As the district rolls out new buses equipped with stop-arm cameras for the start of the new school year next month, those buses will be used on routes with the most hot spots.
Shenendehowa purchased 20 new school buses already equipped with the stop-arm cameras, part of annual efforts to replace old school buses with new ones. New buses purchased in the future also will come equipped with the cameras.
Alfred Karam, Shenendehowa’s director of transportation, said he expected the district to start working out the logistics of operating the cameras with the county soon, and potentially have an agreement in place by the end of September. But the cameras will be up and running when they start transporting kids to school next month.
Duanesburg Superintendent Frank Macri said his district purchased a pair of new buses equipped with the cameras but he still needs to look into the specifics of the new law. The district has also worked out a way of relaying bus driver information to the district’s school resource officer, a Schenectady County sheriff’s deputy, notifying law enforcement about unsafe driving.
Even with the logistical hurdles of establishing agreements to install the new cameras, the education community Tuesday broadly lauded the new law and its overarching goal — minimize unsafe driving around school buses.
“It takes that much more pressure off the drivers, so they can focus on really what’s important, which is driving safely for the children,” Govich said.