After a 10-year-old student was struck last year by a driver who failed to stop for a loading school bus, the Lake Travis school district mounted cameras on a bus to find out how often vehicles illegally passed.
The answer was about once a day — 91 times during the 90-day pilot program.
“It puts our students at risk,” said Johnny Hill, the Lake Travis district chief financial officer. “Drivers speed around the school bus. We continue to receive calls from parents, and those in the community, of drivers continuing to disregard the stop areas.”
Now the Lake Travis district wants to have cameras installed on the exterior of all its buses, and to team up with municipal police to issue $300 fines by mail to the registered owners of vehicles that pass after a bus displays its stop signals.
Districts in San Marcos, Leander and Round Rock have all tested the cameras, and Austin is considering whether to participate in a pilot. San Marcos has already decided to move forward with the program while the other districts continue to research it.
“Our bus drivers were reporting that a lot of regular drivers were running our reds at multiple stops,” said Jason Gossett, San Marcos district assistant superintendent of business and support services. “The bottom line is that this is for the safety of our students and our drivers.”
Texas law requires drivers approaching a bus from either direction to stop when the school bus is displaying a stop sign or red flashing lights. Drivers cannot proceed until the bus resumes motion, or the bus driver signals the other driver to proceed, or the visual signals are no longer activated.
The $300 civil penalty is a fraction of what offenders would pay if caught by an on-scene officer; in Texas, drivers who illegally pass a stopped school bus can receive tickets for as much as $1,250.
The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Survey reports a rise in the number of drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses, prompting more districts across the country to install such automated traffic enforcement systems.
The Dallas and San Antonio school districts already have such programs, as well as districts in Georgia, Connecticut, Michigan, Virginia and Washington, among others.
The Lake Travis school board in August signed a five-year contract with Texserve – a government agency under the umbrella of Dallas Public Schools — and the company it contracts with as the video equipment and maintenance vendor, Force Multiplier Solutions.
Under the program, the videos and photos from the cameras will record the violators and identify their license plates. The photos are mailed to the vehicle’s registered owner, along with the $300 tickets. Texserve and Dallas-based Force Multiplier Solutions will keep 75 percent of the money, with the rest split between the school district and the city where the district is located.
The participating districts must get the cities to also join the agreement to make the offense a civil penalty. None of the cities of Lakeway, Bee Cave or San Marcos have passed such an ordinance, but the districts have approached them about the idea.
Trey Hatt, spokesman for the city of San Marcos, said the city officials are in the “early stages” of internal discussions and do not have a time frame for taking the issue to the city council.
Districts that have signed the agreement point out that it doesn’t cost taxpayers anything.
“The priority is improving safety for the children on the school bus; that’s what drove the decision,” said Jason Buddin, Lake Travis school board president. “We believe this to be another tool to improve safety and security.”
Slater Swartwood, Jr., the marketing director for Force Multiplier Solutions’ “Bus Guard” system, said the majority of the revenue goes to recouping the costs of the equipment, installation and maintenance; each system costs about $8,000 per bus, he said. Swartwood said violations typically decrease after the first year as drivers become more aware of the law and are issued tickets.
The districts in Central Texas are contracting with TexServe and Force Multiplier Solutions without going through a competitive bidding process, which is not required by state law because the districts do not pay for the program. State law requires districts to go through such a process if the amount of the goods or services exceeds $50,000.
Lake Travis district officials and some city employees compared services offered by Force Multiplier Solutions’ Bus Guard, and those of four other companies, and also interviewed one of the other companies. San Marcos officials did comparisons but did not interview other companies.
If the districts move forward with the program, each will conduct public service announcements about it before tickets are issued.
In Austin, the district has not yet done a pilot program, but officials say they are open to the concept.
“AISD is all about enhancing the safety of our students and we welcome any ideas that can help us achieve that goal,” said Kourosh Hafezizadeh, director of transportation.
State law requires drivers approaching from either direction to stop when a school bus is stopped and displaying a visual signal, such as red flashing lights or a stop sign. Drivers should not proceed until the school bus resumes motion, or the driver is signaled by the bus driver to proceed, or the visual signal is no longer activated.
A driver going the opposite direction does not have to stop for a school bus if it is on a highway with roadways separated by an intervening space or physical barrier.
Source: Texas Department of Public Safety
Central Texas school districts that participated in a 90-day pilot program using one school bus each recorded dozens of drivers who illegally passed while the bus was loading or unloading school children.
Lake Travis – 91 violations
Leander – 66 violations
Round Rock – 45 violations
San Marcos – 77 violations
Source: Force Multiplier Solutions