Exclusive: Red Light Camera Company Lobbying for School Bus Stop-Arm Cams in NY

Photo courtesy of American Traffic Solutions.

One of the nation’s largest red-light camera companies is lobbying New York State lawmakers to legalize school-bus cameras that catch drivers breaking laws against passing such vehicles when they’re stopped, records show.

American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the Arizona-based company that operates red-light cameras in Nassau County and was tapped to install recently approved school speed-zone cameras there, hired a lobbyist to push the “School Bus Camera Safety Act” in the state Legislature, according to state lobbying disclosure reports.

The bill would “authorize the installation and use of photo monitoring devices on school buses to detect and record vehicles illegally passing or overtaking a school bus,” reads the legislation pending in the transportation committees of both the state Senate and Assembly.

The devices can be fitted onto the sides of school buses to record vehicles passing them when the flashing-red-light-adorned “stop arms” are extended, indicating that children are boarding or exiting the vehicle, which is when state law requires drivers in all directions stop.

Municipalities in half a dozen states nationwide have hired ATS to provide school bus stop-arm cameras, including Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maryland, according to the company’s website.That doesn’t include ATS’ competitors that provide the same services elsewhere across the country.

The Press learned of ATS’ lobbying for the bill shortly before the FBI arrested the former head of Chicago’s red-light camera program last week for his role in an alleged $2-million bribery scheme in which authorities said he steered business to one of ATS’ competitors, Redflex Traffic Systems. ATS has not been accused of criminal wrongdoing for its legal lobbying efforts.

The sponsors of the bus-cam bills in both chambers, state Sen. Catherine Young (R-Livingston County) and Assemb. William Magnarelli (D-Syracuse), said last week that they were “hopeful” that their proposal would pass.

“Too many children continue to be injured by motorists who disobey the law and pass stopped school buses,” Young said in a news release. “Bus drivers can’t be expected to act as law enforcement and get the license plate numbers of passing vehicles when they’re focused on driving and keeping students safe.”

Critics have called such traffic-enforcement cameras intrusive and a ploy for lawmakers to plug budget gaps in the name of public safety. Studies have shown that red-light camera revenue has dropped as drivers learn how to avoid such violations, but speed camera revenue was expected to help Nassau fund raises for county workers.

Jason Starr, the Nassau County chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that such traffic-enforcement cameras need safeguards to ensure there are no abuses of driver data in order to strike a balance between public safety and privacy rights.

“You can capture all types of data about someone that has nothing to do with public safety,” Starr said of such cameras, noting that he hasn’t read the bill so he could only comment generally about his similar concerns with red-light cameras and license plate readers recording drivers’ movements. “They have to have some protections there for the data.”

“This is not about tracking drivers, this is about identifying people breaking laws…and providing police with the tool to help enforce it,” said Charles Territo, an ATS spokesman, who added that the school bus stop-arm video cameras are only activated when drivers pass a stopped bus. “What right to privacy do they believe they have on a public road?”

“In addition to capturing video, the system automatically embeds a data bar which includes GPS coordinates, date and time of the violation, and other relevant violation information used to create a comprehensive evidence package,” the company says on its website of the devices, dubbed CrossingGuard. “A final review of the violation image and video is conducted by law enforcement personnel.”

Like red light and speed cameras, registered owners of vehicles caught are mailed summonses. Bus-cam violators would face fines of $250 to $400 that would feed a school bus safety education fund under the bill.

Drivers would receive no points on their licenses, but repeat violators could wind up with a suspended license. The bill would also increase criminal penalties for injuring or killing a pedestrian while passing a school bus.

Vehicles pass stopped school buses about 50,000 times daily, according to statistics provided by the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, a nonprofit school bus safety advocacy group that also has been calling for the cameras.

Representatives for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) as well as state Senate co-leaders Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Center) and Jeff Klein (D-Westchester) did not return calls for comment on whether the bill may come up for a vote before the legislative session ends next month. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s press office did not respond when asked if he would sign the bill into law.

State Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) is listed as a cosponsor of the Senate version bill while Assembs. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont), David McDonough (R-Bellmore) and Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead), the deputy speaker, cosponsor the Assembly version. All but one declined to comment on the bill.

“We’ve waited two years for this bill to move as it is,” said Solages. “It’s not about revenue, it’s really about making sure that our kids are safe going to and from school.”

Installation of red-light cameras at 100 intersections on LI—50 each in Nassau and Suffolk—began five years ago. State lawmakers approved 100 more for LI last year. In April, the state approved 125 school-zone speed cameras for LI—56 in Nassau and 69 in Suffolk, which amounts to one per school district.

Nassau County lawmakers Monday approved expanding their red-light camera contract with ATS to include the speed-zone cams. Some red-light cams already in school zones can double as speed cameras and about 20 will be affixed to unmarked vehicles, county traffic officials said. ATS’ portion of the fines was cut to 35 percent from 38 percent, they added. Suffolk hired Xerox to run their red-light cams.

ATS said they look forward to working with schools statewide, should the bill pass.