EAST MARLBOROUGH— Earlier this year, Unionville-Chadds Ford school directors authorized $55,000 in funding to equip stop-arm cameras on some of the district’s 45 school buses. A few weeks into the school year, it appears that investment is beginning to pay dividends.
“I have been getting two to three (infractions) a week,” said Marco Sordi, transportation director at Unionville-Chadds Ford School District. “And multiply that by the buses that don’t have them, and I can only imagine how often this problem happens.”
Sordi said the stop-arm cameras are a trial for the school district. Tredykffrin-Easttown is the only other school district in Chester County that employs stop-arm cameras on school buses.
Earlier this year, school directors were alerted to the problem of vehicles passing stopped school buses loading and unloading children by school bus drivers.
According to a 2018 survey by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, more than 20 percent of school bus drivers in 38 states, plus the District of Columbia, found that nearly 83,944 vehicles passed 108,623 buses illegally on a single day last school year. That number increased from just over 78,000 vehicles in 2017 and over 74,000 in 2016.
The issue of drivers ignoring school bus stop arms gained national attention earlier this year after three students were struck and killed by a driver late last year in Indiana.
Jeff Hellrung, school director, told the board he was concerned there would soon be a fatality if school officials didn’t take action soon.
Here’s how it works: Once a vehicle illegally passes a bus, a sensor installed directly below the stop-arm will trigger a marked alarm on the video recording each time it senses a vehicle passing the stopped bus. A high-definition digital video recorder captures views of the event from both directions. The DVR recording is tagged with stop-arm violation and information such s date, time and GPS coordinates. When the bus returns to the yard, the video tagged as a stop-arm violation is automatically downloaded over WIFI to a central server for review, and police processing.
John Austin, who has been driving buses for the district for 22 years, said a motorist passed his stopped school bus the first day of school.
“I’ve had four blatant violations in the past five weeks,” Austin said. “We all get them, at least one a week.”
Motorists who pass a stopped school bus while loading or unloading children face a hefty fine, a 60-day license suspension and five points on their driver’s license. With the stop-arm cameras, a police officer doesn’t even need to be present. The bus driver fills out a form and gives it to Sordi, who reviews footage of the incident and forwards it to police, who issue the citation.
The high-definition video cameras on the buses are positioned to capture the front and rear of a vehicle in an opposing lane of traffic. The cameras are able to provide key information for a conviction, including year, make, and model of the car, along with the license plate, and often can even capture an image of the driver.
Shawn McGlinchey, a representative for Krapf School Bus Group, said local district magistrates often plead down these types of cases.
"Enforcement is still lacking. There is a Congressional bill on this that hasn't passed let. Locally, we feel the district justices can do a better job of enforcing it and not reduce the charges. This is our biggest concern."
Without the cameras, motorists often get away scot-free unless a police officer was patrolling the area.
“The bus stop is a complicated procedure for bus drivers,” Sordi said. “There is a lot they have to do. To be rubber-necking to try to catch a license plate number and for the (bus drivers) to try to write it down is very difficult.”
Austin said he activates his yellow flashing lights 150- to 300-feet before a stop as required by his training, and often motorists use that signal to accelerate to beat the flashing reds.
“I was on Route 926, near the Landhope and I was completely stopped, letting kids off the bus, when this guy came flying by,” Austin said. “I’d say it was more than seven seconds after I was at a complete stop.”
Sordi said he will continue to forward infractions to police.
“Our kids’ safety is critical,” he said. ‘With texting and driving that is going on these days, it’s just getting worse. We have to do something.”