New tools to catch stop arm violators could be coming

Rafael Garcia
Topeka Capital-Journal
Passing a stopped school bus can mean a fine, but those tickets are only written in Newton when the violation is witnessed by law enforcement. A new bill in the Kansas Legislature could mean cameras placed on busses that would lead to tickets.

In a normal year, Newton USD 373 bus drivers observe between 100 to 150 drivers who fail to stop for a bus with stop arms deployed.

The 2020-21 school year has been anything but normal, and stats on stop arm violations are far from complete. In the 2018-19 school year, 102 drivers in Newton illegally passed stopped school buses, according to USD 373′s transportation department. That was down about 75 from the year before. 

Each violation, according to district staff, is a big deal. 

"Our students’ safety is our department’s No. 1 priority. We want to keep them safe and we can’t do that alone. We need the community’s help,” said district director of transportation Sheila Zwahlen after reviewing numbers in 2019. 

Kansas law requires all motorists to stop when approaching a stopped school bus from either direction when it’s displaying its flashing red lights and stop arm. Motorists have to remain stopped until the bus is no longer displaying its lights and stop arm. Violation of the law endangers children and is punishable by a fine and court costs in excess of $420.

Enforcement of the law is a struggle. In Newton USD 373, violations observed by bus drivers are reported to law enforcement, but fines are rarely leveled. 

"If the driver can get the tag number we report it to the police. But they cannot issue a ticket unless an officer sees a vehicle running a bus stop arm," said Samantha Anderson, director of communications for the school district. 

There could, however, be a new tool in the tool box if the Kansas Legislature advances a bill first debated in committee last week that would place cameras on school busses designed to catch drivers who fail to stop. 

The Kansas House Judiciary committee on Wednesday afternoon held a hearing on House Bill 2154, which would allow the Kansas State Department of Education to partner with a private contractor to install, operate and maintain cameras on school bus stop signals.

After an Abilene girl was killed by a teen driver illegally running a stopped school bus in September 2020, legislators are more hopeful to pass a bill that would install cameras on buses to monitor potential violations.

What's the punishment for driving past a stopped school bus?

Any person caught on camera illegally driving past a stopped school bus with its arm deployed would face a $250 civil penalty, which would largely go toward paying down program fees and paying current or retired Kansas law enforcement officers to verify any violations.

Tickets would be handled similarly to red light camera violations, in that they would be mailed, along with photo evidence of the violation, to the registered owner of the car caught on camera.

Should the owner of the car — or an alternate driver, if the owner of the car appeals and argues the car or registration plate was stolen — fail to pay the ticket, the Department of Education would inform the Kansas Department of Revenue's Division of Vehicles to refuse car registration or renewal until the ticket is paid. Committee members said they wanted to explore adding an option for car owners to shift the fine to alternate drivers who accept responsibility for the violation.

Unlike a ticket issued by law enforcement at the scene of a violation, the penalty under the proposed bill would not count against a driver's record, since it would be a civil penalty rather than a violation of the traffic code.

Comparatively, a citation from a police officer for that moving violation starts at $315 and escalates to as much as $1,000 for subsequent offenses. Drivers, if already cited by law enforcement on scene, could appeal the civil penalty if that were also assessed.

This graphic from BusPatrol outlines how the private contractor would work with the Kansas State Department of Education and any local school districts who sign up for the service to monitor and send tickets to drivers who illegally run past stopped school buses.
Drivers issued civil fines under the BusPatrol camera monitoring system would have the chance to appeal the ticket for reason of their car or license plate being stolen. The Kansas House Judiciary committee is exploring an option that would allow owners of cited cars to shift the fine to other drivers who accept responsibility for a violation.

98% of those ticketed don't attempt to pass a school bus twice

While KSDE would be tasked with administering any contract with the private vendor, it would be up to local districts to essentially opt into the program by passing local resolutions on the issue. The department would also have to provide an annual report to the Legislature on program statistics.

The committee heard from Jean Souliere, the owner and founder of BusPatrol, a company that is the proposed contractor to provide the school bus camera services. The company would be responsible for installation, maintenance, administration and evidence preparation. The company would also provide analytics on potentially dangerous bus stops.

Souliere said the company's services have helped reduce school bus stop sign violations between 25% and 30% year-over-year in districts that use the service.

He said the service works by instilling a reflex in people.

"That reflex is the same reflex we all feel when we're driving the interstate and we see a patrol car," he said. "We immediately pump our brakes. We do that first before looking at the speed, and then we look at the speed. And it's that very same reflex that BusPatrol has been able to instill in the communities we serve."

Souliere said 98% of people who receive a ticket via the program don't attempt to illegally pass a school bus a second time. He said the company could commit to putting a camera system on every single bus in Kansas, or at least on buses for every district that opts into the program.

More than 1,000 school bus stop sign violations occur every day in Kansas

According to one-day surveys hosted every April, sponsored by KSDE, more than 1,000 school bus stop sign violations occur every school day across Kansas.

"When you consider that in Kansas, kids are in school over 180 days, think about the number of violations and the number of kids who are put in jeopardy," said former Rep. Jim Karleskint, a proponent of the bill.

The bill, a rehash of a bill last year that was interrupted by the pandemic, was broadly backed by education leaders, including several superintendents and transportation managers from across the state who submitted testimony in support of the bill. 

Kansas State Board of Education chairman Jim Porter, R-Fredonia, said the state board was adamantly in support of the bill, which is part of a years-long effort to tamp down on school bus stop sign violations.

He noted that Kansas had not previously had a fatality from school bus stop sign violation until the September accident.

"It is a problem," Porter said. "I understand that there are concerns that have been expressed already, and my urging is that we either pass something or find an alternative that addresses this situation, because it is in fact treacherous for children and is happening many, many times every day."

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said that while he had "substantially less heartburn" with this version of the bill, he still held some reservations about essentially outsourcing law enforcement to a private industry, third party. He said he also had a problem with "paying a bounty" to a company like BusPatrol, and that it could lead to a bad incentive to write as many tickets as possible.

Souliere said since bus patrol only compiles evidence for law enforcement to sign off on, it could not inflate ticket amounts unless the evidence was already there to approve a ticket. He said BusPatrol had no enforcement mechanism to force people to pay itself.

The committee took no action on the bill Wednesday, but chairman Fred Patton, R-Topeka, said the committee would hopefully revisit the bill ahead of the turnaround deadline for bills from the House.

Chad Frey, Newton Kansan, contributed to this report.