Eastern Iowa school buses have eye on you

Bus cameras capture, but don't curtail, moving violations

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Smile, you’re on stop-arm camera.

That’s the reality for drivers within the Monticello, Mid-Prairie and Washington community school districts, three of the 20 school systems in the state using the monitoring devices to catch motorists who aren’t obeying the rules of the road.

Stop-arm violations, in which a motorist fails to halt when a school bus’ stop sign extends, earned statewide attention in 2011, after 7-year-old Kadyn Halverson of Kensett was killed after a car struck her as she walked to enter her school bus.

The following year, Gov. Terry Branstad signed Kadyn’s Law, which increased punishments for motorists who fail to stop for school vehicles.

According to Max Christensen, director of school transportation for the Iowa Department of Education and a former bus driver, stop-arm violations are the most pressing safety concern for students who ride buses.

Woody Harden, transportation director for the Washington schools, agreed.

“Anytime you have students entering or exiting the bus, it’s the most dangerous area of the bus, when they’re unloading and loading,” he said. “Having traffic stop and making sure our kids are able to safely cross the street when the bus driver directs them to do so, that’s the biggest safety area.”

Neither the department of education nor the Iowa Department of Transportation, both of which sponsored a recent study on school bus safety, has a formal position on the use of stop-arm cameras or how school districts should reduce stop-arm violations.

“It’s like telling someone else how to do their job. The school districts are the ones in charge of school safety,” said Steve Gent, director of traffic and safety for the Department of Transportation. “It’s not our job to enforce something on somebody else.”

Caught but not tracked

Neither the state transportation nor education departments track stop-arm violations, making it almost impossible to quantify how frequently motorists commit the offense. According to a 2012 study from the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, a one-day survey of 2,221 Iowa school buses recorded 222 passing incidents.

Given the high number of fatalities on the road and the relatively low number of accidents involving school vehicles, Gent said bus safety “wouldn’t be our highest priority.”

“School bus safety is a really important issue to everyone in the state, especially the Department of Transportation, but it’s not our responsibility,” he said. “But for me, someone who’s trying to make the roads safer for everybody, there’s some other issues out there that are much bigger than this, based on the research.”

Two of Monticello’s 16-bus fleet contain stop-arm cameras, while all of Washington’s buses are enabled with the devices. Both districts obtained them after incidents in which recorded visual evidence would’ve helped clarify the details.

“Cameras would give us protection for our drivers and allow us to be able to see what’s happening with students on buses,” Harden said.

The cost of the devices varies, as does the functionality. Some cameras cost hundreds of dollars, while others cost thousands, and some capture the extended stop arm as well as the passing vehicle, while others only take footage of the car.

Steve Hollan, the transportation director for the Mid-Prairie schools, credited general student safety concerns with his district’s decision to get the cameras, and encouraged other districts to do the same.

“I think you’ve got to go with the system no matter what the expense is, to give the safety to the students that they deserve,” he said. “It’s a small investment to keep the students safe.”

Poor deterrent?

What little data is available doesn’t make a strong case for or against the cameras as a deterrent. Monticello and Mid-Prairie administrators do not track stop-arm violations. Depending on where the incidents take place in these largely rural districts, transportation directors report them to either the city police, sheriff or Iowa State Patrol.

According to the Washington Police Department, officers cited 11 stop-arm violations in 2012, the largest amount since the district began using the cameras in 2008. That year, there was only one incident. Aside from that year, the stop-arm cameras do appear to have had an impact or at least coincided with a decrease in stop-arm violations. In 2006 and 2007, there were three incidents each year, a peak that held until last year.

District data, however, reveals that administrators reported seven violations during the 2010-11 school year, 10 during the 2011-12 school year and nine so far in 2012-13.

Stop-arm cameras are still rare for districts in the corridor, absent in the Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, College Community and Clear Creek Amana districts. Katie Mulholland, superintendent of the Linn-Mar Community School District, said administrators are studying whether or not to get the devices on school buses purchased in the future.

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