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School Bus Cameras: Safety, Surveillance, or Stipends?

School Bus Cameras: Safety, Surveillance, or Stipends?
Illegally passing a stopped school bus can endanger children and their families. Image: Gloucester Township Police Department

Illegally passing a stopped school bus can endanger children and their families. Image: Gloucester Township Police Department

Bill S-211, which allows school buses to be equipped with outward-facing cameras to record illegally passing cars, is moving on to the State Assembly for approval. The monitoring cameras are mounted on the side of the bus and photograph cars that pass when the bus is stopped to drop off or pick up children, with its stop sign extended and flashing lights on. The cameras would be required to capture bus’s flashing lights, the car’s license plate, make, and model, and the date, time, and location of the incident. Law enforcement officers then review the photographs and issue a summons within 90 days of a violation, and a ticket is mailed to the home address of the car’s owner or lessee. Additionally, the bill redefines the penalties drivers are subject to if caught by a camera instead of a police officer: a fine of $300-$500 replaces a $100 fine, five penalty points on the drivers’ license, up to fifteen days in jail, and up to fifteen days of community service.

A similar bill was introduced in June 2015 but did not advance to the Assembly. The new version of the bill removes the five penalty points added to a driver’s license because the cameras cannot confirm the driver of the car. This version breezed through the State Senate with a 30-1 vote. Cars passing stopped school buses is undoubtedly an issue not just in New Jersey, but across the United States. According to National School Bus Loading and Unloading Surveys, 76 children were killed when struck by a car passing their school bus from 2001-2015.

Currently, school bus drivers can record license plate numbers of passing cars to submit to the police, but when a car is zooming past and the driver is focused on knowing where the children are, the likelihood of catching a plate number is small. Police officers oftentimes pull drivers over for unlawfully passing school buses. In 2015, 1,655 summonses were written in New Jersey alone for drivers’ failure to stop for a school bus loading or unloading children.

An example of a camera attached to a school bus

An example of a camera attached to a school bus

Proponents of the bill include the Traffic Safety Coalition, which according to its website, is funded by the traffic safety camera industry and therefore would directly benefit from selling cameras to often cash-strapped school districts and from a high number of tickets being issued. Money collected from violations go to the municipality’s financial officer, and could be used for general municipal and school district purposes, including to cover the cost of the monitoring system itself. One monitoring camera costs upwards of $4,000, and in many cases, camera companies also receive a portion of ticket revenue.

Questions surrounding this bill are similar to those which are asked about red light cameras: is it a money grab for municipalities and camera companies, and will they actually make crossing the street safer? Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon of Monmouth County told NJ.com that camera companies moved on to selling the products to school districts after the state ended its red light camera program.

In theory, these cameras will allow police officers to focus their time and attention on enforcing other laws. School bus drivers won’t need to keep an eye out and try to read license plates and can focus on looking out for the kids crossing in front of the bus. However, officers will still need to review the photos taken by the bus. Additionally, others worry about adding more cameras to public spaces. When red light cameras were in place in New Jersey, the Mayor of Pohatcong said, “From my perspective, for your budget it’s great to have the cameras, but sometimes you have to look at what’s right and what’s wrong.”

This bill would not require municipalities or school districts to invest in these cameras, but it would make it explicitly legal to do so. Three New Jersey municipalities already have cameras in place: Denville, Branchburg, and Jefferson Township. No matter which way the vote goes in Assembly, lawmakers and representatives are in agreement about the need to protect children from careless and unsafe drivers, especially on their way to and from school.