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Tri-Cities lawmakers' bill would increase penalty for passing school buses, permit cameras

Zach Vance • Feb 1, 2019 at 11:31 PM

Two Washington County lawmakers want to raise the fine and add jail time to penalties for driving unsafely around school buses.

State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, and state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, introduced the “STOP Act” Friday; it would increase penalties for drivers who fail to stop when a school bus has its “stop” sign extended while picking up or dropping off students.

The bill also would help pay for installation of video cameras on buses to facilitate enforcement of the school bus laws.

“In recent years, we have seen far too many instances where student safety has been jeopardized, whether on board school buses or at the bus stop,” Hill said in a press release.

“The future leaders of our community should not have to worry about whether they will reach their school campus or home safely. The STOP Act will ease these concerns, while promoting responsible driving practices around school buses in cities and towns across Tennessee.”

Under his proposal, Hill said the installation of video cameras would not be mandatory for local education agencies, but if the cameras are wanted, the Tennessee Department of Education will pay 65 percent of the costs associated with buying, installing and operating the external cameras. The school systems would pay the remaining 35 percent.

“It also authorizes sheriff’s deputies and police officers to review the video footage so if they see a violation — somebody going around a school bus when it’s stopped, their lights are on and the ‘Stop’ sign is out — the police officer can turn that over to the district attorney to prosecute it,” Hill said.

How much those camera systems will cost is unknown, because the fiscal note has yet to be calculated. The STOP Act would also allow school systems the option of contracting with private vendors to have the equipment installed and operated for them.

At least 16 states have already enacted similar school bus stop-arm camera laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

According to a story published in the Hattiesburg American, the Lamar County School District in Mississippi installed outside cameras on 47 of its 147 buses, specifically those that drive the most heavily traveled roads. Installing outside and inside camera systems was estimated to cost between $1,800 and $2,000 per bus.

The father of two children, Hill said a November 2018 incident in Jonesborough in which a 10-year-old boy was hit by a motorist while crossing Highway 81 to get on the school bus, really motivated him to craft this legislation.

“I know that was an accident, but that really made me start digging and doing research,” Hill said. “When I started researching, I realized the current penalty was practically nothing.”

As of today, anyone found guilty of improperly passing a school bus can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, punishable only by a fine of between $250 and $1,000.

Hill and Crowe’s initiative would increase the penalty to a Class A misdemeanor, which entails up to 11 months and 29 days in jail, a fine of up to $2,500 or both. There are laws in place for situations when a child is struck and injured by a vehicle improperly passing a school bus.

“There are people all the time, unfortunately, that are going around the buses. That’s wrong and there need to be consequences to that. That’s why I proposed increasing the fines substantially and having jail time,” Hill said.

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