Phoenix-area districts adding cameras to catch drivers illegally passing school buses

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

Two school districts in the West Valley have become the first in Maricopa County to permanently outfit their school buses with cameras designed to record drivers passing illegally while students are loading and unloading.

Tolleson Elementary School District installed so-called “stop arm cameras” on two buses for the start of this school year. It joins Tolleson Union High School District, which installed cameras on about 20 of its buses last school year. The high school district plans to add cameras to another eight buses in October, said spokesman Joseph Ortiz.

Another 11 school districts in Maricopa County said they were considering adding the cameras, according to a survey this month of all 58 public school districts by 3TV/CBS 5. Tempe Union High School District said it plans to request stop arm cameras in its next bus purchase, which is expected in early 2018.

The cameras are designed to address the seemingly interminable problem of stop arm running, which occurs more than 14 million times per year across the country, according to the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. Under Arizona law, drivers may not pass a school bus in either direction when the bus stop arm is extended. The only exception is when the bus is on the other side of a divided highway with a curbed median.

Some Maricopa County school districts, including Deer Valley Unified, experimented with stop arm cameras in recent years, but ultimately decided not to purchase them, citing the cost of such systems and limitations in state law.

“We did test out the cameras, however, at this time, there is nothing we can do with the photos,” said Deer Valley spokeswoman Monica Allread. “The Arizona Legislature has not passed any bills that allow using these pictures for citations or enforcement.  Therefore, we decided against spending money on the cameras at this time.”

Limits in the law

Fifteen states have passed laws specifically allowing school bus stop arm cameras for enforcement purposes, but Arizona is not among them.

In states like Georgia, Washington, Virginia and others, police can issue citations to the registered owner of a vehicle. That means video of a vehicle – and its license plate – passing an extended stop arm is generally enough evidence for a citation to hold up in court, experts said.

However, in Arizona, citations must be issued to the person behind the wheel, not the registered owner. That means police must be able to see and identify the driver, making a large-scale, automated enforcement program with the cameras impractical, according to Charles Territo of American Traffic Solutions.

The Arizona-based company operates school bus stop arm enforcement programs in five states, but not in Arizona. The company offers their system to districts for free, then takes a percentage of the fines that are generated – usually about 60 percent.

Some critics say the system is simply a money-making ploy for school districts and private vendors, but Territo points out there is no revenue generated unless drivers are actively breaking the law.

“School bus stop arm cameras are just another tool that we can give school districts and to law enforcement to ensure that a tragedy doesn’t happen with a child getting on or off a school bus,” he said.

From 2011 through 2015, 22 school kids across the country were killed by a vehicle passing a school bus, according to national survey by the Kansas State Department of Education.

No children have been killed while boarding or exiting an Arizona school bus in well over a decade. The Kansas State Department of Education data shows the last student killed in such an accident in Arizona was in 1993, although state-by-state data for the years 2000 through 2003 is not available online.

Why districts are purchasing stop arm cameras anyway

David Suder, the transportation supervisor for Tolleson Elementary School District, said his district decided to purchase stop arm camera systems to gather data and identify routes where violations are taking place. Suder said the system costs about $4,500 per bus.

“We haul the most precious cargo of any transporter in the country,” he said. “Our main goal is to keep our children safe taking them to and from school."

Districts throughout the state encourage their bus drivers to write down a description of vehicles that illegally pass and forward that information to the Department of Public Safety. DPS can then send a warning letter to the registered owner of the vehicle, Suder said.

The cameras should greatly simplify that process for drivers, Suder said, and allow them to instead focus their attention on the loading and unloading of students.

He said the cameras could also be useful for pushing for legislative change in the future.

“We've got to have more stringent laws that also give us the ability to use the new technology available to prosecute the motoring public that does not want to abide by the law,” Suder said.

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Derek StaahlDerek Staahl is an Emmy Award-winning reporter and fill-in anchor who loves covering stories that matter most to Arizona families.

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Derek Staahl

This once-uncompromising "California guy" got his first taste of Arizona in 2015 while covering spring training baseball for his former station. The trip spanned just three days, but Derek quickly decided Phoenix should be his next address. He joined CBS 5 and 3TV four months later, in August 2015. Before packing his bags for the Valley of the Sun, Derek spent nearly four years at XETV in San Diego, where he was promoted to Weekend Anchor and Investigative Reporter. Derek chaired the Saturday and Sunday 10 p.m. newscasts, which regularly earned the station's highest ratings for a news program each week. Derek’s investigative reporting efforts into the Mayor Bob Filner scandal in 2013 sparked a "governance crisis" for the city of San Diego and was profiled by the region’s top newspaper. Derek broke into the news business at WKOW-TV in Madison, WI. He wrote, shot, edited, and presented stories during the week, and produced newscasts on the weekends. By the end of his stint, he was promoted to part-time anchor on WKOW’s sister station, WMSN. Derek was born in Los Angeles and was named the “Undergraduate Broadcast Journalism Student of the Year” in his graduating class at USC. He also played quads in the school’s famous drumline. When not reporting the news, Derek enjoys playing drumset, sand volleyball, and baseball.

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