School bus cameras capture moving violations

It’s illegal nationwide to pass a school bus stopped with flashing lights, but that doesn’t prevent Nevada drivers from doing so close to three times per bus, per day.

That’s more than triple the national rate, according to a bus driver survey released in August by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.

The Clark County School District has 1,380 buses making 18,000 stops every day, which causes grave concern for Frank Giordano, the district’s transportation director. But he has found a way to catch the violators and make them pay.

Bus-mounted cameras.

One small camera mounted on the left side points backward and another points forward to capture vehicles that pass while the stop arm is extended. With 100 percent accuracy, the cameras can read the license plate of a vehicle traveling up to 60 mph, according to equipment provider Gatekeeper, which also provides cameras to the U.S. Air Force and Department of Homeland Security.

As of Aug. 26, the first day of school, camera systems have been in operation on two district buses where drivers have observed the most violations, Giordano said. The district now has the technology to ticket drivers, but not the authority.

Nevada law prohibits using “photographic, video or digital equipment for gathering evidence” to issue traffic tickets, unless it’s in the hand or vehicle of a police officer, such as one using a radar gun to catch speeding drivers.

The law is the reason why hundreds of cameras overlooking Nevada roads can’t be used to ticket drivers who run red lights, said Scott Magruder, spokesman for the Nevada Department of Transportation.

The cameras stream live to monitor traffic flow but don’t record.

Giordano plans to push for a bill to change the law when the Legislature reconvenes in 2015. The bill would amend the law to allow for “stop-arm cameras,” as they are called. He will use the footage and statistics of illegal passings gathered this school year to make his case.

“I can’t imagine why anyone would be against this,” Giordano said.

He noted that a student hasn’t been hit or killed by an illegally passing car in Clark County — yet. But with so many violators and 100,000 students being bused every day, it’s only a matter of time.

Fatalities, pilot programs and the bus driver survey now in its third year have led to changes in states from Washington to Georgia. In Nevada, the bus driver survey reported 2,597 drivers passed school buses that were dropping off or picking up children in a single day in May.

“To me, that’s 2,597 times we got lucky,” Giordano said. “We’re trying to be proactive here, not waiting for a tragedy.”

That count was for only 974 buses, a fraction of Nevada’s school buses, but it represents an average of 2.6 illegal passes per bus every day, three times the national average of 0.77 illegal passes per bus per day. A bill came before the Nevada Legislature in 2011 seeking to repeal the law that forbids videos to be used in identifying and ticketing drivers. But it didn’t receive one hearing.

“It had no support,” said Magruder, whose transportation department lobbied for the bill in 2011 but didn’t bring it back to lawmakers in 2013. “You’re seeing less and less support.”

But the intention at that time was to have it repealed for cameras at red lights, placement the public often views as a revenue generator not intended to improve public safety.

That’s where Giordano says he may have a better chance, as has been the case in other states.

“Who doesn’t support the safety of our kids?” said Giordano, noting that if the district separates its request from a full repeal allowing red-light cameras, “people may have a whole different feeling.”

TRIED ELSEWHERE

The number of illegal bus passings has dropped in Georgia since state law­makers allowed the cameras in 2011, said Carlton Allen, director of pupil transportation for the Georgia Department of Education.

Results of the one-day survey in Georgia counted 8,102 violations in 2011. That dropped to 7,349 in 2012 and fell even further to 6,807 violations this year. “I attribute that to the cameras,” he said, but emphasizing that only a few Georgia districts have put them in place so far.

“That seems to be the way in Georgia,” Allen said. “If it works well when one district tries it, the others will follow.”

The Georgia districts that have installed the cameras haven’t had to find the money to do so, he said. Revenue from tickets is split among the district, law enforcement, whose officers review the footage and send the tickets, and the camera provider as payment.

“Districts aren’t out to get people or revenue,” Allen said. “They’re trying to change people’s behavior.”

But the verdict is still largely out on the cameras, their effectiveness and the best practice for operating the ticketing system. A similar debate involves red-light cameras allowed in 24 states and Washington, D.C.

San Diego officials had to revamp a red-light camera program after learning camera operators condensed the regular yellow-light interval to issue more tickets and generate more revenue.

To avoid that, Washington’s 2011 law allowing stop-arm cameras prohibited camera providers from receiving a cut of ticket collections. Lawmakers required companies to simply be paid for equipment and services.

no tickets from videos

A growing number of states are allowing the stop-arm cameras, but how many is unclear, as the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Trans­portation Services is working to quantify that number. Georgia was one of the first, and that was just two years ago, so there isn’t much data either, Allen said.

Washington state lawmakers passed a stop-arm camera law by an over­whelming 138-4 vote. But officials for the Washington Department of Education are aware of only two districts out of 295 that have implemented stop-arm camera systems, doing so this school year, according to Allan Jones, director of student transportation.

“We were surprised with the complexity of implementation,” he said, noting that a school district must reach an agreement with police.

And the new Washington state law says police can only be paid for the administrative cost of writing the tickets. Police don’t receive a set cut of ticket collections. All other revenue collected from tickets must be given to the school district and used explicitly for school zone safety projects.

In Nevada, drivers cited for a first-time offense for illegally passing a school bus receive a $250 to $500 ticket. It was unclear how many tickets Las Vegas police hand out for this violation because the department’s analyst wasn’t available last week.

Giordano said he isn’t pushing for the cameras based on the assumption that the district will receive ticket collections.

He is willing to be flexible and work with concerns from state lawmakers. “The current system just isn’t working,” he said.

Nevada law allows his 1,380 drivers to take the license plate number and vehicle description of anyone who illegally passes. That information is sent up the ladder. But the law says it can’t result in a ticket, just a stern note in the vehicle owner’s mailbox. And that hasn’t reduced the illegal passings witnessed by his drivers, Giordano said.

Although his camera-equipped buses still can’t go any further than a note, they will send a message to legislators, Giordano said. “I want to show them how big this is.”

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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