OLYMPIA, Wash. — A new state law may make it easier for school districts and law enforcement officials to catch motorists who illegally pass stopped school buses, thanks to the efforts of a bus driver.
Substitute Senate Bill 5540 was signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire in May and went into effect on July 22.
The law allows school districts to voluntarily install automated camera systems on school buses to identify vehicles illegally passing the buses when students are boarding or disembarking. The law restricts the camera system to only take pictures of the vehicle and its license plate — not the driver or any passengers.
The camera systems must be approved by a majority vote of school board members before they can be installed.
Fines from tickets generated through the cameras are identical to fines given by police officers: currently $394. The revenue generated from the automated tickets can be used to offset the cost of the purchase of the camera system and for administrative costs. Any funds remaining are returned to the school district to be used for school zone safety projects.
Allan Jones, director of student transportation at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), told SBF in a recent interview that it is unique to use the revenue from the tickets to pay for the camera systems and the administrative costs, and for everything left over to be used for school zone safety projects.
“We’re telling people to work with the local law enforcement before having the cameras installed and make sure to get the press involved. Our main motivation isn’t to do this quietly and generate revenue — it’s to give attention to this issue,” he added.
The inspiration for the bill that ultimately became the law came from Brennor Beck, a school bus driver for Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor, Wash.
He told SBF in an interview that he was frustrated by the number of motorists who illegally pass his school bus (on average, two to three per day), but he was also concerned by the figures statewide.
“I’ve had other drivers tell me how their stop arms are being run. School buses within this city limit are illegally passed at least 50 times a day, and within the district it’s more like 100,” he said, acknowledging that it’s a nationwide epidemic, and adding that instances of motorists passing buses on the right is “especially mind-boggling.”
Beck spoke with an official from the Public School Employees Union of Washington about the state’s illegal bus passing problem, who worked to introduce the bill in the Legislature.
“When it came up for hearing, I testified before the state Senate Transportation Committee, and I also went before the state House Transportation Committee. We had a school bus the previous year that was hit head on in the morning when the driver was picking up kids. I got a photo from the fire department and got it blown up to poster size and took it to those hearings to let the members look at it,” Beck said.
The OSPI is revising its School Bus Specifications Manual to include the new law. Moreover, state law gives the OSPI the authority to govern the design, marking and mode of operation of public school buses in the state, and the agency has proposed the following specifications for the camera systems:
• They may produce photo, micro-photo or electronic images.
• Images must be legible in any lighting condition without use of a visible flash.
• Cameras may be mounted inside or outside the bus. If they’re mounted outside, they must not extend more than 6 inches out from the side of the bus.
• They must verify that the “STOP” sign is deployed and red lights are flashing at the time of detection.
• They must capture the rear license plate, from either direction, at the time an illegally passing vehicle is detected.
• They may be located on the left and/or the right side of the bus.
• They shall capture images only of the lanes immediately to the left and/or the right of the bus.
• They must not be driver activated or distract the driver during operation of the bus.
• They must not obstruct the driver’s direct line of sight in any direction.
A meeting held on Oct. 7 provided an opportunity for the public to comment on the details of the camera specification language. Jones said the meeting went smoothly, and while at this point the OSPI doesn’t have any data on the cameras’ effect, he is optimistic about the repercussions of the law.
“We’re at the very beginning stages of having the cameras installed on any buses, so we don’t have experience yet of seeing what the before and after impact is, but I think this is a great opportunity to get our message out there about the importance of stopping for buses,” he added.