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Utah school districts test cameras that catch motorists passing buses

Published February 24, 2014 9:42 pm

Safety • The infrared cameras can read license plates in all conditions.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On the very sidewalk where he was about to deposit a group of junior high schoolers, Shaun Adams watched an overcorrecting motorist screech by within inches of the school bus's mirror.

Reflexively, he slammed the door shut. If he hadn't ...

Now a systems specialist for Alpine School District, Adams believes school bus stop-arm cameras can help eliminate the stress he endured for four years as a bus driver.

This month Alpine became the first Utah school district to test Gatekeeper Systems cameras, which use infrared light to capture snapshots of license plates as vehicles illegally pass stopped buses.

Evidence gathered from Alpine's lone demo set-up has already led law enforcement to issue two citations, Adams said, and Canyons School District began its own trial last week. Adams said a few other districts are interested observers.

The State Office of Education conducted a one-day stop-arm survey in 2011. Eleven responding school districts (out of Utah's 41) reported 601 vehicles illegally passing a bus while its stop arm was down, with 168 of those vehicles coming from the rear.

On the day that Adams averted tragedy, the problem was an inattentive driver who failed to see both Adams' flashing yellow warning and that the bus had come to a stop. Most of the time, though, the problem isn't negligence but a willful disregard for state law.

"I have many instances that I can look back and think, 'Man, how nice would it have been to have a camera?'" Adams said, adding that it is near impossible for bus drivers to pay attention to their kids and also catch the make, model and plate of an offending vehicle. "In the heat of the moment, it's kind of surreal. ... Having the camera on there, that would take care of that."

According to the Kansas State Department of Education, which compiles an annual national report on loading and unloading fatalities, 21 children were killed by vehicles passing a school bus from 2009 to 2012. Over the 43 years Kansas has conducted the survey, 73 percent of children killed have been between 1 and 9 years old.

"Unfortunately what's usually driving [tougher legislation] is some sort of event," said Doug Dyment, president and CEO of British Columbia-based Gatekeeper Systems. Mississippi passed "Nathan's Law" in 2011 after 5-year-old Nathan Key was hit and killed by an illegally passing vehicle. Iowa created "Kadyn's Law" in 2012 after a similar collision claimed the life of 7-year-old Kadyn Halverson.

According to School Transportation News (STN), many states have either implemented or are considering laws that authorize school districts to use stop-arm cameras for law enforcement.

STN reports that states with laws on the books include Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.

Current Utah Code says drivers traveling the same direction must stop behind the bus and not proceed until the flashing red lights stop. Opposite-direction travelers must also stop unless they're on a divided highway, or the bus is stopped at an intersection or they're on a highway with five or more lanes.

Violations are a class C misdemeanor, with a minimum fine of $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense within three years of the first, and $500 for a third offense within three years of the second.

Adams says he's consulted with police, prosecutors and even a judge to figure out what type of evidence they need for a citation, and he's been told that under current Utah law, they require clear identification of the driver; the license plate alone won't do.

Canyons spokesman Jeff Haney says its trial bus is fitted with 13 cameras and is being deployed on various routes throughout the district for data-gathering purposes. They have not issued any citations, but they are recording images for possible referral to law enforcement. Haney said that on Monday alone, and on a relatively untrafficked road, they captured footage of three violations. The test will continue through the first week of April.

The Gatekeeper setups feature infrared cameras that can read a plate in all conditions. Dyment said they can capture the numbers on a vehicle moving up to 60 mph, while a complimentary series of video cameras show that the stop arm was engaged at the time of the vehicle's passing and, if they're lucky, a clear image of the driver.

Units cost between $1,700 and $3,000, Dyment said, with additional costs for installation. Adams said he has been quoted about $4,000 per unit, taking care to note that Alpine will not make any investment without careful consideration.

"We want to make sure we're doing our best to not overspend," Adams said. Similarly, Canyons has not yet committed to any deal with Gatekeeper.

Utah Pupil Transportation Specialist Murrell Martin said Alpine and Canyons are taking a proactive approach, but adds that he's felt some reservations while watching marketing presentations about stop-arm cameras.

"I have mixed feelings if it means that the driver feels less responsible for the safety of the students," he said.

In Utah, drivers are taught to carefully evaluate potential dangers before signaling students to leave the bus or cross a street, Martin said, and cameras do not "replace the safety provided by a well-trained or surpervised driver."

Alpine is among a handful of Utah school districts that already use Gatekeeper's internal video systems, with 71 buses featuring the devices.

Those, Dyment says, are installed to counteract bullying, vandalism, false liability claims, and to "keep the driver's eyes focused on the road in front of them and not the chaos behind them."

mpiper@sltrib.com Twitter: @matthew_piper