OLYMPIA — There’s a good chance somewhere in Snohomish County today a school bus will stop on a two-way street to let students off and a car will blow by, putting the lives of those youngsters in danger.
At that moment, bus drivers can jot down the license plate and report it to police, but
most are too busy trying to warn students not to cross.
Now, a bill motoring through the Legislature might help by allowing school buses to be equipped with automated cameras that snap pictures of the offending vehicle’s license plate and forward them to law enforcement.
“This was dreamed up by the bus drivers,” said Heather Meier, communications coordinator for the Public School Employees of Washington*, which represents 4,000 school bus drivers statewide. “Their intention is to save our children.”
Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who sponsored the legislation, said he’s seen cars zoom around the bus his son rides to school even when the stop paddle is extended.
“As a father, it’s frustrating to see it,” he said. “People are violating the law. People are not getting caught and this is about protecting our kids.”
His bill is a new angle in the debate surrounding use of the so-called red-light cameras. And thus far it’s stirred up far less political heat than measures in Mukilteo, Monroe and other cities to curb deployment of basically the same cameras.
The legislation sailed through the Senate, passing 49-0 on March 4. The House Transportation Committee approved it last week with little debate.
No one testified against the bill in legislative hearings. Prominent opponents of the cameras said that’s because lawmakers moved it through too quickly.
“We would have been there,” said Nick Sherwood, the Puyallup co-founder of BanCams.com.
He’s watching it closely now and contends the issue of needing cameras to boost safety is overblown. Sherwood cites statistics from the National Highway Safety Commission that 21 out of 30,797 traffic fatalities in 2009 involved a school bus. Of those, he said, 13 were caused by the bus driver slamming into pedestrians.
“We’re clearly solving a problem we don’t have,” he said, noting no students have been killed in this state by a vehicle passing a stopped school bus.
“We shouldn’t have to wait for that to happen to move forward with a solution when a solution is already here,” she said.
Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, who co-sponsored a bill outlawing so-called red-light cameras, successfully pushed to double the fines for those passing school buses illegally.
“I think that folks should be wrung by their neck for driving past these stop signs. It puts our children in danger,” he said in the transportation committee hearing.
Under Substitute Senate Bill 5540, school districts may install automated safety cameras on any or all buses in its fleet. These would basically be the same cameras used by cities to catch speeders and those running red lights.
The legislation requires a district’s board vote to approve their use in order to ensure the public can weigh in beforehand. It does not put it to the district’s voters.
Cameras would snap shots of the license plate and the registered owner would receive a notice of violation in the mail. A violation would be treated like a parking infraction with a $394 fine — essentially double the fine for an infraction in a school zone.
At least half the money collected must be spent on “school safety zone projects” with the remainder spent to cover law enforcement costs and equipment rental. Districts cannot use those funds to buy pencils or paper, or pay for teacher salaries, Hobbs said.
Mukilteo’s Tim Eyman, author of the Mukilteo and Monroe initiatives, said this is about helping cash-strapped school districts make money.
“It’s a brand new product line by red-light camera companies to hook school districts on the ticketing revenue the same way the cities are hooked on the ticketing revenue,” Eyman said.
Officials at Everett and Edmonds school districts said there’s no plan to rush out and get cameras if this becomes law.
“It’s not a critical need for us,” said Mary Waggoner, director of communications for the Everett School District. “We have such a good relationship with our law enforcement that if we do have an area where there is a problem, we tell them and they are out there.”
To read SB 5540 go to www.leg.wa.gov.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Correction, March 31,2011: This story originally used an incorrect name for the union.