Districts consider placing cameras on buses to catch illegal passers

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OLYMPIA — Clark County school districts are considering installing video surveillance on school buses in hopes of keeping kids safe and catching unsafe drivers.

A law passed in the 2011 legislative session allowed school districts to voluntarily install video cameras on buses, making it easier to catch drivers neglecting school bus stop signs and passing illegally.

The ticket fine for passing a school bus is $394. Those fines generated from the use of cameras would be used to pay for the camera systems, although some districts do not think the systems would be worth the cost. Officials say the system would cost somewhere between $3,000 and $7,000 per bus.

Battle Ground and Hockinson school districts are not currently interested in installing the systems, said Mike Gately, manager of Petermann Northwest, the transportation company that handles busing for the two districts.

“Initially looking at it, the cost of the cameras versus the revenue generated from fines doesn’t seem like it would make a lot of sense at this time,” Gately said. While they do encounter some drivers passing the buses illegally, it isn’t a big concern.

Without cameras, bus drivers must identify drivers who are illegally passing them, a system that has been in place for years and has not been particularly effective, said Allan Jones, director of pupil transportation for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“Imagine being a bus driver and having kids get off the bus, then here comes a car not slowing down and passes the bus and you’re trying to get a good identification of the driver while you’re frantically watching the kids. You’re not going to be able to,” Jones said.

If drivers could make an identification they could fill out a form with local law enforcement, who are sometimes too busy and understaffed to follow through, Jones said.

So far in 2011 there have been 15 school bus collisions in Clark County, according to Washington State Patrol Trooper Ryan Tanner. Tanner said he had not seen an increase in illegal school bus passing but said surveillance would be helpful in an investigation.

Jones, who was a bus driver in Seattle for 14 years, said there hasn’t been an increase in illegal passing because it’s always been a big problem. Jones said he had drivers illegally pass him every day, adding up to shocking numbers across the state.

“We have over 7,000 drivers out there every day doing a route and if there was just one person a week that went through their lights, that’s over 200,000 a year. If we can cut that number down that would be great,” Jones said. “When we talk about those kind of numbers, people just don’t believe us.”

Scott Deutsch, who is in charge of risk management and safety for Evergreen Public Schools, said they had discussed using the new system with the Vancouver Police Department but they were far from implementing it yet.

“There are a lot of partnerships that would need to be in place to do something like that. It would have to go through the city council and school board for approval,” Deutsch said. “But it is something that we’ve talked about.”

After paying for the camera systems, leftover money generated from the automated tickets would be given to the school districts. Districts could use that revenue to pay for school safety zone projects, saving school districts money.

“There’s about six different versions of the school zone sign, they’re trying to get rid of all those different variations and just standardize them to when the lights are flashing. That’s just one example of something they could use that money for,” Jones said.

Improving signs is something Evergreen has been working toward, said Deutsch, who said any funding to help enhance signage would be good.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is holding a public hearing Friday in Olympia to write the law in the School Bus Specifications Manual; districts can choose to install the systems beginning Nov. 7.