Niagara Falls Schools Superintendent Mark Laurrie wondered how much of a problem there is with cars passing school buses whose red lights are flashing.
After cameras installed on two buses picked up 20 vehicles passing stopped buses in the first week of a pilot program, he is convinced the problem is significant.
"It's kind of disturbing to hear that in one of the pilot runs, 20 instances were caught on film. In one of those instances, we could see kids in very close proximity. It was a bit disturbing to see that," Laurrie said.
The school district announced Saturday at a news conference outside Cataract Elementary School that it is the first upstate district to begin a pilot program that uses cameras to catch drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses.
"I was kind of leery about the number of actual instances that this occurred in. And to hear that on one of the two buses, that 20 of them were passed, is pretty disconcerting," Laurrie said. "This has got to stop. This has got to stop."
The camera program is provided to the district for free by BusPatrol America, which currently works in six other states outside of New York with similar programs.
Each camera system, which includes seven cameras, costs about $10,000, said David Poirier, president of BusPatrol America. But the school district will not pay a cent for the cameras, or the company's review of the video recordings. The company is paid through the $250 civil fines that are paid by violators, he said.
The pilot program in Niagara Falls started last Monday on two Niagara Falls Coach Lines buses with some of the busiest routes, Laurrie said. The bus company transports about 5,000 students with about 80 buses every day, and First Student takes about 200 students to placements out of the city.
"I want to move from this pilot to the full implementation in no time flat," Laurrie said. "I'm convinced as the district representative, that we're ready to go full out."
Poirier said video is captured from the entire bus run. The system flags the sections of the recording when the flashing red lights go on, and BusPatrol America staff in northern Virginia review those portions of the video. They capture the feeds of cars passing the bus, determine the name and address of the person who registered the vehicle, and send that information to the police department. The police department then determines if a ticket should be issued.
No tickets have been issued in Niagara Falls because the program is still a pilot, and the city has not yet adopted an ordinance governing the practice. The city also would have to negotiate with the camera company on how much of the fine would go to the company.
Before the governor signed legislation in August allowing the cameras on the bus to record drivers passing the bus, a ticket for illegally passing a stopped school bus displaying a red visual signal could only be issued by a police officer who witnessed the violation.
The legislation calls for a $250 fine that increases to $300 apiece for three or more infractions.
"We try to get our cost back up front because our program does work, and there will be degradation, and people stop passing school buses," Poirier said.
He said his company has found that about 98% of those ticketed for passing a school bus never get a second ticket.
"They realize there are cameras on buses, and they stop," he said.