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Nathan Baker

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Bill proposes traffic cameras on school buses

March 6th, 2014 9:51 pm by Nathan Baker

Bill proposes traffic cameras on school buses

(Johnson City Press file photo.)

A Franklin legislator hopes a bill he sponsored in the General Assembly will prevent accidents like the one police say happened Thursday morning at a Unicoi County bus stop.

In that incident, Tennessee State Troopers said a 6-year-old boy and his grandmother were struck by an SUV as he crossed the road to get on a county school bus.

State Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, said four similar accidents occurred last year in the state when drivers either didn’t notice, or outright disobeyed, the flashing red lights on school buses indicating students are nearby.

“People are in such a hurry, they just don’t stop when the stop sign on the bus is extended,” he said Thursday from Nashville. “To me, that is inexcusable.”

This session, Casada filed a bill in the House that would give local school districts in the state the authority to attach enforcement cameras to the outside of school buses to photograph the license plates of drivers who pass the buses as they’re stopped and send the pictures to police to issue the appropriate tickets.

The bill also aims to stiffen the penalties for the moving violation, requiring a $300 fine for a first offense, $750 for a second and $1,000 for the third or subsequent offenses. The current penalty for all occurrences of the Class A misdemeanor is a fine of between $250 and $1,000.

“We’re not messing around,” the lawmaker said. “We’re going to penalize people for doing stupid, dangerous things.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, six states have adopted similar statutes and three others are considering them.

Enforcement camera companies, like REDFLEX, the maker of many of the red light and speed-enforcement cameras used by municipalities in the Tri-Cities, offer applications for school bus stop arm enforcement, but Casada said the school bus cameras are of a different nature than the other traffic cameras.

“People can say things like ‘They’re only going to be used to generate revenue,’ and I’d agree if we were talking about red light cameras,” he said. “I vehemently oppose traffic cameras, but turning right on red is not the same thing as running over children.”

Assistant Director of Washington County Schools Roy Gillis said he would welcome the enforcement mechanisms to the district’s 109 buses.

“I think it would be a good instrument to have,” he said. “We don’t have a large number of cars passing our buses, but there have been school buses passed in the past.”

One consideration the county district would have to make is for the cost of outfitting the vehicles with the new equipment, Gillis said.

But like their other cameras, many of the enforcement-equipment companies offer contracts where the companies install the cameras at little or no cost, but local governments owe the companies a portion of the fines generated by them until they are paid off.

Unlike Gillis, Johnson City Transportation Director Eldonna Janutolo said she isn’t sure the cameras would be effective at reducing the number of vehicles that pass stopped buses.

Emphasizing that she isn’t familiar with Casada’s bill, Janutolo said the city department takes extra care to keep students from having to cross roads, when possible.

Bus routes are designed so students will disembark on the side of the street on which they live, and if drivers notice cars passing buses, they’re encouraged to report them to police.

“I can’t imagine why people think it’s a good idea, but sometimes it happens,” she said. “Do I think cameras will prevent that? No. Just like the red light cameras don’t stop people from running red lights.”

Like the cameras already installed at intersections in the city, Casada’s bill requires the information gathered by the cameras to be reviewed by a trained law enforcement officer before a ticket can be issued.

Johnson City Police Chief Mark Sirois said he hadn’t heard of the proposed law, but said if the city decided to put the cameras on buses, his department would handle the enforcement.

The work required to review the data and issue tickets could be absorbed by his current roster of officers, he said.

“I applaud the legislators for moving forward with something that would enhance the safety of our children,” Sirois said. “I think most people are cognizant of their obligation to not pass a stopped bus, but of course, there are some violators, and I think something like that would help to enhance the law enforcement end.”

The bill has been assigned to the House’s Transportation Subcommittee, but does not have an assigned date to be considered.

Casada said he’s planning to present it March 26, after he finishes with other legislation he filed this year.

The bill’s Senate companion, filed by Gallatin Republican Ferrell Haile, is on the Education Committee’s calendar for March 19.

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