There are few sights more enraging while stopped for a school bus than to see another driver miss or ignore the bus’ stop signal arm and blow past a bunch of kids trying to cross the street.
It happens more often than we like to imagine: On a single day last year, 108,623 school bus drivers across the country reported 83,944 drivers passed their buses illegally, according to a survey by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.
Nationally, that works out to more than 15 million violations during the course of an 180-day school year.
“To amplify the shocking results from this school year was the fact that over a six-day period from Oct. 26, 2018 through Nov. 1, 2018, six students were killed and eight students and two adults were injured by vehicles either violating school bus stop arms or hitting students and adults while they were waiting at the bus stop,” said Mike LaRocco, the group’s president. “Despite the fact that students are much safer being transported to and from school in a school bus, students and adults at the bus stop are still very much at the mercy of inattentive motorists. The sheer volume of these illegal passing incidents in a day, let alone an entire school year, is tragic and sobering, particularly when you consider that these injuries and deaths are easily preventable.”
Lest you think we are a little bit more responsible around these parts, the Massachusetts numbers are just as troubling. A pilot program that put school cameras on school buses in Medford in 2011 found that in a 105-day period, 112 drivers passed a stopped or slowed school bus — more than one potentially deadly violation a day.
So what to do?
Let’s start by accepting that the kids are not the problem. Anyone expecting an elementary school pupil to keep a weather eye open for an unexpected passing car at either end of the school day has likely never been parent to an 8-year-old. And let’s also stipulate that public awareness campaigns can only go so far -- everyone knows you’re supposed to stop for the school bus.
We’re left with enforcement.
Most communities have made this a priority. Some have police patrols tasked to bus stops, waiting to catch early morning or afternoon scofflaws. Some, like Groveland, have cruisers shadow school buses on their routes, stopping and writing tickets for those drivers who don’t stop 25 feet from a stopped bus, or who take off before the stop arm is closed.
In Massachusetts, drivers who violate the law face fines ranging from $250 for first-time violators to $1,000 for repeat offenders. The fine structure is much the same in New Hampshire, and in both states, repeat offenses can bring loss of license.
The problem is catching offenders in the first place. While the police patrols can be effective, they are limited in scope. Municipalities simply can’t afford to have a patrol car follow every bus on every route.
That is why we are intrigued by proposals on Beacon Hill that would allow school bus stop arms to be equipped with cameras that would catch violators in the act.
The cameras would shoot only when a car illegally passes a stopped bus, with its stop sign extended, capturing an image of the license plate of the offending vehicle. The proposed legislation would allow cities and towns to use that data as evidence of a violation. Currently, a police officer or bus driver must witness a violation for a motorist to be cited, a difficult task at best when cars are speeding by and one’s top priority is the safety of children in the street.
“We know there’s a problem, and there’s a very compelling case for doing this,” said state Rep. Linda Campbell, a Methuen Democrat and a sponsor of one of the bills. “Little kids getting off buses aren’t paying attention to traffic, and we need to protect them.”
Similar bills have been filed in recent years but have gone nowhere. The newer versions of the legislation, however, have addressed issues such as storage of footage and how to protect the privacy of people inadvertently shot by the camera.
The cameras come with a cost. Many of the companies that provide the equipment do so for free, taking a percentage of the fines levied against offenders.
And the number of scofflaws tends to drop in states that allow bus arm cameras, David Poirier, president of the Virginia-based bus camera company BusPatrol America, told a Beacon Hill legislative committee last month.
“If people know they’re going to get caught for passing a school bus when kids are getting on and off, they stop,” he said.
It’s a straightforward approach to a chronic problem. Let’s hope the Legislature gives it more attention this session than in years past.