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Districts consider cameras for reducing risks

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The driver’s pulse quickens every time he approaches the bus stop at a four-way intersection. It’s one of the most dangerous spots for his students.

He already has had conversations with his elementary-aged students, some of whom have ridden the bus for years, while others are just getting used to the routine.

He reminds them to use the sidewalk and, if they have to cross the street, they should cross in front of the bus where he can watch them.

Too often kids, excited to be home from school, forget those instructions as soon as they’ve cleared the bus’ steps and scatter in all directions.

Then the bus driver has to hope that any other motorists on the road know to stop when they see the bus’ flashing red lights and stop sign on the extended stop arm.

Sometimes people aren’t paying attention, especially in neighborhoods where bus stops are 50 feet apart, and drive through the stops before realizing kids are getting off the bus and heading home.

Other drivers crossing the intersection suddenly might turn into the path of the bus or the students because they don’t realize it is illegal, Clark-Pleasant transportation director Ed Tichenor said.

“There are just so many variables there. And it really comes down to educating the drivers of the vehicles, the drivers of the buses, the children and the parents,” Tichenor said.

Johnson County’s six public school districts have more than 330 buses in their fleets, with each one transporting between 60 and 70 students to and from school each day, totaling about three-quarters of local public school students. Bus stops vary from subdivision streets to rural roads and state highways.

Transportation directors consider getting on and off the bus the most dangerous part of a student’s day. That’s why they regularly review safety procedures, such as how to watch both students and traffic, with their drivers, Tichenor and Franklin transportation supervisor Doug Dickinson said.

One of the top concerns is keeping students safe when they get off the bus and head home, especially along busy streets or in neighborhoods where drivers aren’t used to stopping.

State lawmakers are considering a proposal meant to help bus drivers and police catch motorists who break the law and go through bus stops as children are being dropped off.

Their idea is to equip buses with cameras. That way when a motorist does go through a bus stop before the bus doors are closed and the flashing lights have stopped, the bus driver and police will have proof.

After a vehicle runs through a bus stop, the bus driver calls a report into the transportation director, who then calls police.

If the bus driver was able to get a license plate number or other identifying information, then police can contact the driver and issue a citation.

Often drivers will deny going through the bus stop, and if there isn’t a camera on the bus there’s no way for the bus driver to prove beyond a doubt what happened, officials said.

“It helps when we’re interviewing (a driver) to know that we don’t have to accept the answer, ‘Hey, I don’t think I ran the bus arm.’ We can see for ourselves that he or she did,” Johnson County Sheriff Doug Cox said. “This may come as a shock, but very seldom do people say, ‘Yes, I did it, and I screwed up.’”

Bus drivers are required to flash amber warning lights before the red stop lights on their buses, and the cameras school districts could purchase would prove they followed every procedure they were supposed to before a driver went through the bus stop, Cox said.

What the proposal doesn’t say is how the cameras, which can cost thousands of dollars, will be paid for.

Property tax caps restrict the amount of money Franklin and Clark-Pleasant schools have to pay for transportation and bus replacement costs, and it’s unlikely either school district could afford the cameras for their fleets of between 60 and 75 buses, school officials said.

Cameras might make it easier for bus drivers and police to catch motorists who go through bus stops, but they won’t necessarily make the bus stops any safer since they would only help identify drivers after a potential collision, Tichenor and Dickinson said.

Bus drivers typically can tell when a motorist is about to run through a bus stop, Tichenor, Dickinson and Franklin bus driver Charles Canary said.

Usually drivers wait for traffic to clear before letting kids off the bus. During a drop-off, if a vehicle is coming and isn’t slowing down, chances are it’s going to continue through, they said.

When that happens, bus drivers can try to copy the license plate number and identify the driver, but that’s becoming harder because of vehicles’ tinted windows, Canary said.

At the same time, bus drivers also are trying to watch the kids outside of the bus to make sure they’re safe and keep an eye on students on the bus to make sure they’re behaving.

Transportation directors are realistic about the odds of getting cameras for the buses.

They know their school districts likely don’t have the money for the devices. Plus, they don’t know that drivers will think about whether a bus has a camera before they drive through a bus stop, making the cameras a deterrent to breaking the law, they said.

“It’s a tool, and it will help us report it,” Tichenor said. “Will it deter it? I don’t know.”

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