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Cruz: Austin district adds school-bus camera protection for students

Ensuring that every student riding a school bus arrives for class and returns home safely is one of our highest priorities at Austin Independent School District. Our transportation staff — from mechanics to drivers and others — is trained to protect your children when they’re in our care.

We are proud of our safety record and we will soon launch a new program that will help keep students even safer.

In January, the Austin school district will activate its School Bus Stop-Arm Safety Camera Program. This new system uses cameras mounted on the side of buses to help authorities enforce traffic laws that prohibit drivers from passing school buses stopped to let children on or off the bus.

Nearly 22,000 Austin students ride one of the district’s 522 school buses on 390 routes each day. We want each and every one of them to arrive at their destinations safely.

According to a survey by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, 7,676 cars illegally passed 6,869 stopped school buses in Texas in a single day in 2015.

In an effort to see if we could make our students safer, in the spring of 2014, we conducted a pilot program using cameras on 30 buses. Cameras mounted on the buses recorded an average of two school bus passing incidents each day, for an average of 60 violations per day.

The Austin City Council voted to pass an ordinance that makes it a camera-enforced civil offense for illegally passing school buses. I am thankful for this action, which positioned the district to move ahead with the stop-arm safety camera program.

Every time a driver passes a school bus that is loading or unloading children, that driver needlessly places our students at risk. One violation over an entire school year is dangerous. Sixty violations in a day is too many.

Beginning the first week of January, school bus stop-arm safety cameras will be used to issue warning notices to owners of vehicles caught illegally passing stopped school buses. A violation occurs when a motorist passes a school bus after the school bus has come to a complete stop with its stop arm extended and lights flashing. The camera will capture images and video showing the violation vehicle.

After a monthlong warning period, violations will result in tickets with fines. Once law enforcement personnel reviewed the violation and determined the law had been broken, the driver would receive a notice. The fine for a violation is $300.

More than 400 children nationwide have been killed by drivers passing a stopped school bus over the past four decades, according to the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at North Carolina State University.

While riding the bus is the safest mode of transportation, according to the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration, this new program will do even more to keep students safe. Each of the district’s buses have lap belts, GPS tracking and trained bus drivers to ensure safety. But there is only so much we can control while our buses are out on the road.

Please remember that nothing is so urgent that you cannot wait for a school bus. The risk is too great. We need every single driver on the road to help our students get to and from school safely. Remember: If there’s a big yellow bus with flashing lights, you need to stop.

Stopping for buses is just one way to help keep students safe. When you’re driving, remember to slow down in school zones, never use cellphones near schools and look out for our students.

Thank you for your help.

Cruz is superintendent of the Austin Independent School District.

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