In his line of work, Steve Randazzo has seen some gruesome videos of children getting hit by cars and being seriously injured, some almost dying.
“It is very sobering and saddening, but it gives you a strong sense of purpose,” said Randazzo, executive vice president of government relations for BusPatrol, a school bus stop-arm camera and safety technology company. “I’m passionate about what we do to make the roads safer on and off the bus. It’s so important.”
In 2019, there were 95,000 stop-arm violations in a single day, extrapolated to 17 million in a single school year, according to a National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) survey.
Then, COVID-19 paused data collection from the voluntary survey. When it resumed last spring, over 51,500 violations were tracked. However, only 22 percent of the nation’s school bus drivers participated. That led to the extrapolated number over a 180-day school year ballooning to 41.8 million, or about 232,000 a day.
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Most school bus routes occur during morning and afternoon rush hours, when drivers, already distracted by cell phones and other screens inside their cars, are in a hurry to get to work or back home. The goal of the BusPatrol stop-arm camera program, Randazzo said, is to create a culture of awareness and responsibility among drivers around school buses and children.
“The cameras are really welcomed with open arms by the school transportation community,” said Randazzo. “I haven’t met a single bus driver who hasn’t welcomed this technology. They are on the front lines, driving to and from school every day. They’ll tell you that over the years the disrespect for buses has become pretty egregious, with some cars blowing right past stopped buses without even slowing down.”
In all 50 states, it is illegal to pass a stopped school bus. There are 24 states with laws allowing for stop-arm cameras, but only about a dozen have actually implemented them.
BusPatrol and other stop-arm camera companies are working to change that.
BusPatrol has stop-arm cameras operating on 20,000 school buses across North America in 12 states and in Canada. The company also runs pilot programs in districts interested in exploring the technology, like the Sacramento City Unified School District in California.
“We outfit a subsection of district buses with the technology, and though we are not able to issue violations, we use it to collect data to see how many illegal passings are happening,” Randazzo said.
The pilot in Sacramento started in 2021. Randazzo said of the five buses collecting data, an average of three violations occur per bus, per day.
The state legislature is expected to vote this spring on whether to allow stop-arm cameras, and Randazzo and others believe that the videos will impact the outcome.
School districts officials decide how to share the videos, but the goal isn’t a “gotcha” for violators (whose faces and license plates are blurred out), Randazzo said. Rather, it is to raise community awareness.
“We go above and beyond to ensure that everyone in the community is notified that this program is coming,” he said. “We broadcast PSAs on television and radio in multiple languages and share information on social media.”
Awareness is one deterrent, but receiving a violation is likely the best way to reduce recidivism, said Richie Howard, president of AngelTrax, another stop-arm camera technology company.
Sadly, Howard said, sometimes the only thing that will get a driver’s attention and change their behavior is a substantial fine for breaking the stop-arm law. By providing evidence to help eliminate dangerous driving, stop-arm cameras can literally help save the lives of children crossing the street at school bus stops, he said. He added that when drivers become more aware of their surroundings at school bus stops, they can become more aware of their surroundings everywhere, thereby improving street safety in the entire community.
“Research shows that 98 percent of violators receiving citations do not get a second ticket,” Howard said. “That’s the proof that stop-arm cameras work. They change driver behavior and keep kids safer.”
Jay Beeber, director of public policy for the National Motorists Association (NMA), disagreed. While NMA certainly wants children to be safe, he said, the organization doesn’t believe automated enforcement is an effective strategy.
The NMA’s goal, Beeber explained, is to achieve roadway safety through engineering and education, not by ticketing and placing unnecessary additional financial hardship on the public, especially those least able to bear the cost of expensive traffic tickets.
“When additional enforcement is indicated, we prefer that enforcement to be focused on the behavior that causes the most accidents or injuries, not just technical violations,” Bebber said.“Unfortunately, automated school bus ticketing cameras don’t meet these criteria so it is difficult for us to support them.”
NMA researched collisions and injuries to school-aged children in California due to drivers failing to stop for school buses displaying flashing red lights and stop- arms over a 15-year period, starting in 2001. The study found that there were no fatalities during that time and there were 11 injuries, which Beeber said represents less than one collision per year in California resulting from this violation.
California requires school bus drivers armed with a stop paddle to escort students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight across roadways to and from school bus stops.
Still, based on the research, NMA claims that a child is about 120 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be injured by a vehicle illegally passing a school bus.
“While we are in no way dismissing this as a concern, and those who put school children in danger by blatantly violating school bus passing laws should face punishment, it is important to note that twice as many pedestrians are hit by the school bus than by other vehicles,” Beeber said, citing data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Fatality Analysis Reporting System spanning 2006 to 2015. “To improve safety in this area, focusing on safety training for school bus drivers and children would likely have a much greater safety impact than automated ticketing cameras.”
Indeed, school bus drivers have a hard job, and technology company Safety Vision aims to help them increase safety with 360-degree, bird’s eye view cameras for drivers to help them with boarding and exiting.
The monitor is installed within the rearview mirror and is only triggered when the bus is stopped. With a bird’s eye view of what’s happening from all around the bus, drivers can see if students are getting on and off safely, or if a backpack gets caught, or if a child slips on ice and slides under the bus.
“Often a driver won’t know if, at the last minute, a kid is walking right in front of the bus because they couldn’t see them,” said Clint Bryer, director of sales for student transportation at Safety Vision. “It’s very hard to see over the hood of a school bus, and sometimes small kids walk very close. We also provide a back-up camera so they can see everything going on behind them. These videos are used for driver trainings.”
But Safety Vision also has thousands of buses running with stop-arm cameras.
“I’ve seen videos of school bus passings so blatant that people drive off the road,” Bryer said. “Sometimes we’ll see a bus stop with 10 to 15 violations in one day.”
When the company sees that many violations, it uses the information to work with the district and municipality to find out why.
“Maybe we change this bus stop and relocate it a few hundred feet in a different direction,” he said. “That data helps improve the route. Maybe the stop is in an area of trees, or there is too much signage nearby. By changing the stop location away from distractions, we’ve seen improvements.”
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At the National School Transportation Association MidWinter Meeting last month in San Diego, the role of routing software with artificial intelligence built in was discussed as an additional tool to address illegal passing. Antonio Civitella, president and CEO of Transfinder, commented during a panel on illegal passing that AI-enabled software can learn problem areas on routes and provide alternative directions to school bus drivers.
As more stop arm camera companies implement the technology on more school buses, more data will be captured and more videos circulated.
“But sometimes a state legislature doesn’t catch the momentum until a child has been hit,” said Bryer. “Then they look at the data, the videos, and they see how bad it is. Once it’s presented, it’s a real eye-opening experience.”