RICHLAND COUNTY, SC (WIS) - Video cameras mounted on state school buses could soon be used to fine drivers who pass stopped school buses illegally.
With more than 560 school bus stop arm violators on one day during the 2012-13 school year in the state, legislators think the current law needs a revision allowing officials to fine a driver using video camera evidence.
WIS started its investigation after receiving a complaint from a bus driver who said drivers were passing a stopped school bus that is picking up or dropping off students. After arming several Midlands school buses with cameras, we found the complaint to be true.
With four school buses from Lexington-Richland Five and Richland School District Two, in two hours on two different mornings, we took a route that was known for offenders. Within 30 minutes, our cameras caught a driver passing a school bus.
"There's been plenty of cases where drivers get impatient when they see the big yellow school bus, and they just violate the bus arm," said Marcus Anderson, transportation supervisor at Richland School District Two.
School district cameras also caught several vehicles passing a stopped school bus with a stop arm and warning lights activated, and at times, the bus driver can barely finish calling out the license plate number and a vehicle description for the camera before the vehicle is too far to see.
"A lot of people are on their cell phones, turn their head and pretend like they don't see the bus there," said Cora Bethea, Lexington-Richland Five bus driver.
School officials are baffled at how drivers cannot see the bus stopped.
"It's big. It's yellow. It's got red flashing lights," said David Weissman, transportation director at Lexington-Richland Five. "I can't believe they can't see it."
Other times, drivers are seen speeding up to try to pass the school bus before it releases the stop arm.
"They speed up, especially when you have your warning lights on – your amber lights on," Bethea said.
Other times, Weissman said drivers are seen passing busses on the right side, which is the side of the bus' door.
The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services does a one-day study in South Carolina every year. During the 2011-12 school year, in one day, the state had 368 violators, and for a 2012-13 school day, the count increased to 562 violators.
State school bus law
With the high number of violators, school officials think changing the state law will make students safer because violators will not go unpunished.
Currently, the state law says on a two-lane road, drivers in all directions must stop when the bus' lights are on and the stop arm is out. On a multi-lane highway, or a multi-lane private road, those meeting the school bus from the opposite direction don't have to stop. However, the drivers behind the bus do have to stop.
A ticket has to be given by law enforcement at the time of the incident in order for violators to face a penalty. The current law has a $500 fine for first offenses or 30 days in jail. A second offense carries a fine from $2,000 to $5,000 or 30-60 days in jail.
Without the law allowing video camera evidence to ticket a violator, school officials say prosecution typically does not happen.
Currently, Lexington-Richland Five has been trying to get an individual to court for 18 months on a stop arm violation.
Because school districts know the risks of drivers not adhering to the state law, officials try to create routes where students do not have to cross the road.
"All our bus stops are mainly on the right side for pick up," said Anderson. "There's very seldom that we would have a left-side pickup in place."
Bethea said bus drivers are asked to change their routes if students are not on the right side of the road for safety reasons.
Our WIS investigation found that even the law, as it's written, doesn't protect children because video evidence isn't allowed to fine a violating driver.
"They actually have to pass the stop arm that's out," Weissman said. "They can come all the way up close to it, but if they stop inches before the stop arm, they're not in violation."
This leaves no protection for students.
"You could actually hit a student before you even come close to the stop arm, and again, unfortunately, it's too late then," Weissman said.
"The intent of the stop arm is to get traffic to stop at least 10 to 15 feet in front of the school bus, and of course, behind the bus," Weissman explained.
Senate Bill 718 could be a solution. This bill will equip the state's school bus stop arms with a camera to catch violators and allow the evidence to be given to law enforcement. If this bill becomes a law, the penalties could be $100 for a first violation, $200 for the second and $1,000 for each subsequent violation for a five-year period.
"If all the rules are followed, kids get to and from school safely," Weissman said.
SB 718 was proposed late last year and is currently in the Senate Transportation Committee.