Meridian School District mulling cameras to catch cars illegally passing buses

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 5, 2013 

Buses back on roads

Buses are inspected at the Bellingham School District bus barn Friday afternoon, August 22, 2008.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

LAUREL - Drivers who pass Meridian School District buses with their "Stop" signs out could find themselves on camera and facing a big fine.

The district is considering whether to install something similar to red light cameras on its buses. The cameras turn on when a bus' stop sign swings out, capturing license plates of violators who pass by.

A pilot run of the cameras this spring found that in six weeks, 65 people passed school buses that had their lights flashing and stop signs out, signaling that children are getting on and off the bus.

"You think about 65 potential accidents, 65 kids who could've been hit by a car," Superintendent Tom Churchill said. "It was pretty shocking. We thought we should take it seriously."

The pilot started after bus drivers complained about the high number of people illegally passing stopped buses while kids were present.

"It's something we've been hearing from our drivers that they're concerned about," Churchill said. "And it's something that puts kids in danger when people blow by."

Right now, drivers can write up violations for illegal passers and those violations are passed to police for enforcement. District transportation director Dan Alverts thinks that the cameras could provide a more accurate, irrefutable way to catch violators.

The state Legislature created a law allowing districts to install the stop sign cameras on buses in its 2011 session, so the technology is still relatively new and untried in the state. If its board approves the cameras, Meridian would be the first in the county with them and likely one of the first in the state.

Meridian worked with Redflex Student Guardian for its pilot, putting the cameras on six buses on the district's busiest routes, including Guide Meridian and Pole and Smith roads. The district released the results of the pilot and put out a survey to district residents about the cameras. Of 153 respondents, 135 were supportive of the cameras.

The district is still unsure about which company would provide the cameras. Student Guardian is a program of Arizona-based red-light-camera company Redflex Traffic Systems (owned by Australian parent company Redflex Holdings Group) that is under investigation for a $2 million bribery scheme in Chicago connected to its red-light program there.

After reading about Redflex's issues, Churchill said the district may not want to use that company for the program. He's advised Alverts to look into other vendors, and those will be presented to the school board at its Aug. 14 meeting. The board has to approve the cameras before the district can move forward, but no vote is expected to take place at that meeting.

Tickets for passing a bus with its stop sign out are $394. Of that money, the district would get $150, with the rest split between law enforcement and Redflex, if they decide to go with the company. The program is funded by violators, so there is no upfront cost to the district. The money the district gets would have to be used for school zone safety projects, such as installing flashing beacons alerting drivers to school zones.

"It's really not about generating money for the district," Churchill said. "It's very limited-use money. It's really just to stop people from doing it."

If the board approves the cameras, the district plans on doing as much education and outreach as possible to let drivers know about the cameras before they're installed.

"There are those that'll just see it as an intrusion and an unfair effort to just catch people," Alverts said. "They just don't want to recognize that it truly is a safety issue."

On Guide Meridian the year before last, he said, one bus driver submitted more than 140 complaints for cars illegally passing the bus throughout the school year. Whatcom County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Kevin McFadden said the violations usually are heaviest when school first starts and then he'll get a couple per week during the school year. Because law enforcement can't camp out at every bus stop, catching violators can be a challenge.

"It is a problem that's really hard for us to enforce," McFadden said. "Whether this (camera) system would take care of that or not, I don't know because I haven't really seen it work."

ATTEND THE MEETING

The Meridian School Board will hear vendor options for the district's potential school bus cameras at its meeting Wednesday, Aug. 14. The meeting will start at 7 p.m. in the library at Meridian High School, 194 W. Laurel Road.

Reach Zoe Fraley at 360-756-2803 or zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com. Read her School Days blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/schools or follow her on Twitter at @bhamschools.

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