Cameras eyed to nab drivers who pass stopped buses

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UTICA — School buses would be outfitted with automatic cameras recording the license plates of vehicles that pass stopped school buses under a proposal going to Oneida County lawmakers this week.

The draft local law before the Board of Legislators Wednesday would establish a program in which the county will hire a company to install the cameras and monitor them in exchange for a percentage of the penalties collected, which is $250 for a first offense then up to $275 and $300 for second and third violations.

Because offending would be considered a civil violation and not a traditional traffic ticket, it would not cost a driver points on his or her license, which can substantially increase auto-insurance premiums. With that and the relatively low first-offense penalty, officials expect the program to convince most drivers to comply rather than take the matter to court.

“Our goal again is to, again, protect the children in this area the best we can on a daily basis, the very best we can,” said County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr., who called a press conference in Utica Monday to promote the program.

It is expected to not cost participating school districts anything, and while the county set aside $100,000 in its 2020 budget to cover some start-up costs, it is not expected to create significant operating costs for the county. A law enforcement officer from the Sheriff’s Office will be tasked with reviewing the photo evidence before the vendor sends a notice to offending vehicle owners.

Sheriff Rob Maciol said the program will likely simplify enforcement of the stopped-school-bus law. Making a case now requires a complaint by the bus driver, who is often most concerned with the safety of students getting on and off a bus, or other witnesses and other evidence, and in some cases it is hard to find the offending vehicle. The cameras will be mounted on buses’ stop arms and will work like license-plate readers elsewhere, Maciol said. They’ll be equipped with motion detectors triggering a photo of the offending vehicle that passes a stopped bus.

A $25 penalty will be assessed for failing to respond within a determinate period of time, which could ultimately affect the offending vehicle’s re-registration. Failure to respond at all can result in the citation being sent to local criminal court or traffic violation bureau.

Officials noted that it is the registered owner of a vehicle, not necessarily the driver, who would get the notice of violation. The owner would not get a citation, however, if the car is being driven by someone else and the driver was ticketed. The law also has a provision to protect the owner of rented or leased vehicles.

The draft of the law was unanimously approved by the Board of Legislators’ Public Safety Committee on Thursday.

If the law is passed, the county will seek formal proposals from vendors.

Not all school buses would necessarily be outfitted with the cameras. Instead, the vendor would prioritize routes deemed most in need. Maciol said those likey will be the county’s most highly trafficked areas.

New Hartford Central Schools has already expressed interest, Picente said.

In his experience, Maciol said, drivers given a ticket usually are contrite and express misunderstanding about the law, and he sees the proposed program largely as one of educating drivers about the dangers of passing stopped school buses.

“Once word gets out that this is occurring, I firmly believe that people will come into compliance,” Maciol said.

Based on his experience as a patrol officer, Maciol added: “Any time I wrote someone for passing a stopped school bus, they truly were devestated that they actually did that, but they were preoccupied. They were distracted doing something else.”

Maciol also noted that the state law requires motorists on either side of a road to stop when a school bus is taking on or discharging students and its stop arm and lights are on. That’s true even if there is a median or barrier between north and south or east and west lanes. An example is Oriskany Boulevard from Yorkville to Utica, where, for example, drivers heading west must stop if a school bus is stopped for passengers heading east.

“The law is very clear: If you are on the same road you must stop for that stopped school bus,” Maciol said.

The state Association for School Pupil Transportation surveyed school bus drivers in 2013 and found that on one day, 236 participating drivers in 21 rural, urban and small-city school districts reported 306 illegal passes, including six on the right side of buses, where students enter and exit. If extrapolated across the state, that would represent 64,000 passes on that day alone.

The county is to ensure that the privacy of drivers, passengers, pedestrians and cyclists recorded is protected, and that the images are used only to carry out the monitoring program.

The county is also to add to signs on the county’s boundaries a notice that photo monitoring systems are being used.

The county law would not apply to Utica schools because the state law specifically leaves establishing the program up to the governing body in localities where a school district’s boundaries are completely within the locality. It covers Rome because the school district extends beyond the city limits, Picente said.

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