Phoenix-area school bus drivers running red lights, ignoring photo radar citations

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A Scottsdale Unified School bus runs a red light in December 2014. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 records request) A Scottsdale Unified School bus runs a red light in December 2014. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 records request)
A Mesa Public Schools bus runs a red light in April 2017. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 public records request) A Mesa Public Schools bus runs a red light in April 2017. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 public records request)
Photo radar cameras have caught bus drivers running red lights in the Phoenix area more than 50 times since 2012. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 public records request) Photo radar cameras have caught bus drivers running red lights in the Phoenix area more than 50 times since 2012. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 public records request)
A Scottsdale Unified School bus runs a red light in December 2014. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 public records request) A Scottsdale Unified School bus runs a red light in December 2014. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 public records request)

In late 2014, a photo enforcement camera on Tatum Boulevard caught the driver of Scottsdale Unified school bus BB-934-05 running a red light.

Nine days later, another camera recorded the same school bus running a red light at Scottsdale and Thomas roads.

Nineteen days later, an enforcement camera caught BB-934-05 speeding near Coronado High School.

Those three photo enforcement violations, generated in the span of 28 days, were never paid.

A review by 3TV/CBS 5 found photo enforcement cameras in the Valley have caught school bus drivers running red lights dozens of times over the last five years.

In some districts, like Mesa Public Schools, the drivers pay virtually every photo radar citation. But in other districts, like Scottsdale Unified and Phoenix Union High School, most of the paperwork sent by law enforcement is never responded to, and the majority of tickets go unpaid.

“That really upsets me,” said Barbara Hoffman, the mother of a teen who was hit and killed by a red light runner in a sedan. “If they ignore it, they won’t be accountable and things could escalate.”

“I think it’s important for the drivers to take responsibility and pay their tickets, and then go to traffic survival school and get educated on how dangerous red light running is.”

At least 50 photo red light violations

Among the 15 largest school districts in the Phoenix metro area, photo safety cameras recorded school bus drivers running red lights at least 50 times since 2012, according to documents obtained through public records requests. School bus drivers received at least 10 additional photo radar violations for speeding.

Drivers of passenger vans designed to carry students on field trips and extracurricular activities generated another 12 photo enforcement violations in the same span.

Bus drivers in the Valley’s ninth-largest district, Scottsdale Unified, generated the most photo radar violations with 30. Court and police records show of those 30 cases, 17 were were never paid. Most of those notices were tossed out because the driver ignored notices in the mail; others were closed because the district failed to identify the driver in time.

3TV/CBS 5 repeatedly asked for interviews and additional information from SUSD officials every day last week. However, district spokeswoman Erin Helm only provided a statement regarding their policy and informed us that the district would be unable to accommodate our on-camera interview request. The district's full statement is included below.

When a photo enforcement camera catches a violation involving a fleet vehicle registered to an entity, police send a letter to the entity -- in this case, the school district -- asking it to identify the driver. Under Arizona law, the entity has no legal obligation to respond.

If a school district doesn’t respond within 60 days, police in Phoenix and Paradise Valley will close the case without issuing a citation to the driver. In Scottsdale, the district must respond within 58 days.

3TV/CBS 5 initially reported that eight of SUSD’s 30 photo radar notices involving bus drivers were tossed out because the school district never responded, based on information provided by the Scottsdale Police Department and the Paradise Valley Municipal Court. After publication of this story, SUSD asked photo radar vendors in each jurisdiction to re-examine those eight cases. During this second review, vendors discovered the school district had only failed to respond with the driver's identity in two of the eight cases. In three other cases, the district did respond, but the response was received late. In the remaining three cases, Scottsdale police received the driver's identity in time, but elected to close the notice for other reasons. Scottsdale Police Photo Enforcement Program Manager Darcy Nichols apologized, saying some of the cases had been inaccurately reported to 3TV/CBS 5.

All 10 of the photo radar notices generated by vehicles registered to Phoenix Union High School -- including one school bus, six student transportation vans and three work vehicles -- were closed because the school district did not respond with the driver's name, or did not identify the driver in time.

If the district does identify the employee, police send the driver a citation in the mail directly. However, if the driver doesn’t respond to the mailed citation -- and is not served in person by a court process server -- a judge will automatically dismiss the citation “for lack of service” 90 days after the ticket is filed in court.

Nine of SUSD’s photo radar citations were dismissed because the driver never responded to the mailed citation, according to police and court records.

Bus drivers in Glendale Union High School district have received five photo radar citations since 2012; court records show only one was paid. In Deer Valley Unified, bus drivers received two photo radar citations; one was paid.

[MOBILE/APP USERS: Click/tap here to see chart of photo radar citations]

“You are not required to respond to the notice of violation,” said criminal defense attorney Russ Richelsoph.

Richelsoph said the only risk of ignoring the $250 ticket is that if you are served, you have to pay the server fee.

“So you’re gambling $65 on whether or not you’re going to have to reimburse the City for the process server,” he said.

The district where almost every driver pays their fines

The state’s largest school district, Mesa Public Schools, identified its bus drivers in all 22 cases since 2012 so that police could issue the employee a citation. Drivers paid 20 of the tickets and successfully fought one violation in court.

Only one ticket, a red light violation in 2012, was dismissed because the employee didn’t respond to the mailed notice.

“We feel like it’s our obligation,” said Mesa Public Schools Transportation Director Jeanne Vandemark. “We have an obligation to the children and the safety of this school district.”

Despite having more than five times as many school bus drivers as Scottsdale Unified, Mesa Public Schools had 27 percent fewer photo enforcement tickets.

Vandemark said drivers are trained from the time of hire to be accountable behind the wheel. She said the district does not tolerate drivers who get into multiple crashes and provides extra training to employees who get photo radar citations.

“We hold our drivers to a higher standard,” she said.

[MOBILE/APP USERS: Click/tap here to see chart of photo radar citations paid by bus drivers]

Sparking change

Phoenix Union School District spokesman Craig Pletenik said the transportation department was the under impression that all of its drivers were paying photo enforcement citations because the district had never received a follow-up notice.

Pletenik said he had no idea that court records showed all of the district’s 10 notices of violation had been closed without collecting a fine and promised to discuss the matter with staff to ensure future violations are paid.

“They should be paying them,” he said.

The records obtained by 3TV/CBS 5 may not be a complete picture of photo safety violations among the 15 largest districts in the Valley. At least three districts -- including Chandler Unified, Gilbert Public Schools, and Washington Elementary District -- were unable to provide five years of records.

Washington Elementary District Transportation Director Bert Herzog said he was changing the way the district collects and saves tickets issued drivers as a result of records requests by 3TV/CBS5. 

A fourth district, Kyrene School District, did not respond to a July 5 request submitted under state public records law.

Update: After publication of this article, Kyrene spokeswoman Nancy Dudenhoefer said that no drivers had received photo radar citations since 2011. One school bus driver was ticketed by an officer during that period.

Scottsdale Unified's response

In response to emailed questions last week about Scottsdale Unified's policy, spokeswoman Erin Helm sent the following:

"When the Scottsdale Unified School District gets notice of a traffic camera violation, the Legal Department sends that notice to the Transportation Department, asking them to ID the driver. SUSD then sends that driver’s information directly to whichever agency issued the violation. From there, the enforcement agency serves the individual driver and collects fines. The District has no involvement at that point. It is our understanding that civil traffic violations are to be issued to an individual, as corporations/organizations can’t be held liable for them," she wrote.

When asked Tuesday why SUSD failed to identify eight of its 30 school bus drivers and whether the district would consider taking additional steps in the future, Helm wrote, "Just to be clear, the district has no obligation to respond to traffic violations. The process I explained to you about how we identify drivers is really more of a courtesy."

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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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