Suffolk Pols Back NY School Bus Stop Arm Camera Bill

Photo courtesy of American Traffic Solutions.

Three school buses on eastern Long Island were equipped with cameras as part of a pilot program aiming to record drivers breaking laws against passing such vehicles when they’re stopped, officials said.

In the first six school days of April, 38 vehicles were filmed passing the stopped school buses fitted with cameras, a Longwood Central School District official told the Public Safety Committee of the Suffolk County Legislature on Thursday. After viewing the footage, lawmakers said they’ll push for passage of New York State legislation that would result in fines for those caught on camera passing stopped school buses in a plan similar to the controversial red light camera program.

“This hits home to me,” Gail Winsper, director of transportation for the district, who gave the presentation on the program’s findings, told the panel while recalling how she witnessed a boy being hit by a vehicle that passed a stopped school bus 30 years ago. She cited state statistics showing that 35 children have been struck by vehicles passing stopped school buses in the past four years statewide.

Driving passed school buses is a violation of state traffic law with penalties ranging from a $250 to $400 fine for the first conviction, 5 points on a driver’s license and up to 30 days in jail. The flashing-red-light-adorned “stop arms” that extend from the side of school buses indicate that children are boarding or exiting the vehicle, requiring drivers in all directions to stop.

A bill is pending in the State Legislature that would authorize school bus stop arm camera operators to mail fines to the registered owner of vehicles captured passing stopped school buses. American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the nation’s largest red light camera operator, has lobbied for the bill, the Press has reported. The bill has languished for three years, but has the support of several state lawmakers from LI.

Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), who chairs the Suffolk committee and is a former school bus driver, said she will push state lawmakers to pass that bill after watching the Longwood bus videos—many of which showed drivers passing school buses stopped on busy William Floyd Parkway.

“This is something I’ve experienced many, many times,” said Browning, noting that she believes it to be more of a priority than the school-zone speed cameras. Suffolk lawmakers nixed plans to enact school-zone speed cameras last year after a botched rollout in Nassau prompted that county to pull the plug on the program.

The bus video presentation came a week after Operation Safe Stop, an annual law enforcement effort to crack down on drivers passing stopped school buses. Last year, the operation resulted in 1352 tickets issued for passing a stopped school bus along with 1,732 other moving violations statewide, according to state data.

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.

Jason Starr, the Nassau County chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, has 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.

A spokesman for ATS, which operates Nassau’s red light cameras and is lobbying for the state’s school bus camera bill, has said that law enforcement reviews the footage before mailing home fines in the half dozen other states in which they’re contracted to do such work.

“I think the cameras offer some promise,” said Legis. Dr. William Spencer (D-Centerport), who cautioned that there may need to be more public education on the law as well.

Winsper, the Longwood official, said that school bus drivers are too busy loading and unloading students to take down the license plate numbers of vehicles that break the law. And even if they do, the state Department of Motor Vehicles only sends those drivers a warning letter.

When the school bus cameras were compared to the red light and school-zone cameras, Winsper said: “This is not for money, this is to save childrens’ lives.”