Education

Drivers beware: School bus camera program now up and running

Across Suffolk County, thousands of school buses are now equipped with a new technology aimed at cracking down on drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses.

In November, county officials selected BusPatrol, a Virginia-based tech company, to operate the program, which will install cameras on the “STOP arms” of buses in more than 60 participating districts, including Shoreham-Wading River, Riverhead, Mattituck, Southold and Greenport.

Mattituck-Cutchogue superintendent Jill Gierasch said stop arm cameras have been installed on the fleet of Sunrise buses used to transport students daily and more cameras will be installed on district-owned vehicles within the next few weeks.

She said the district is committed to keeping students safe. “The program is a step in the right direction to enhance student safety. By participating in the program, we can help promote community awareness of bus safety rules and regulations and provide increased protections for our students,” Ms. Gierasch said.

Though the program launched March 1, drivers will be issued warning tickets until May 1, officials said, in order to better educate the public about the law.

Southampton Town Police Chief Steve Skrynecki, who helped lead a safety and implementation committee for the county, said the program is centered around student safety.

“This is not a revenue grab,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s designed to keep kids safe.”

While serving on the committee, Chief Skrynecki said he heard directly from bus drivers who have had close encounters with motorists illegally passing on both sides of their stopped buses.

He also noted that it’s sometimes a difficult law to enforce.

“We’d have to be right there to observe that and when a police officer is in the vicinity of a stopped school bus, generally people are stopping,” Chief Skrynecki said. “What we’re hearing from school bus drivers is that does not happen when there’s no police around.”

During a pilot program in 2019, officials in both the Bay Shore and Longwood school districts recorded more than 80 motorists passing stopped school buses each day.

“We’ve already had hundreds of violations [during the grace period],” Chief Skrynecki said. Of the approximately 150 warnings issued so far in Southampton Town, Chief Skrynecki said a large portion were recorded along County Road 39, a four-lane road. “Some people may not be fully aware that the law requires you to stop in all four lanes, not just the two that the bus is going in,” he said.

After the grace period, drivers who are caught passing a stopped school bus will face an initial $250 fine, which would increase to $275 for a second offense and $300 for a third offense. Drivers who don’t respond to the citation within 30 days could also face a late fee.

Officials said BusPatrol will cover all upfront costs for the installation and maintenance for the cameras, which can function in variable weather conditions and include 4G LTE connectivity, AI assisted technology, 4K and 180-degree coverage and anti-vibration technology. The Suffolk program is expected to be the largest of its kind nationwide and fines will be shared, with the county receiving 55% and BusPatrol receiving 45%.

Riverhead interim superintendent Christine Tona said Monday that all 82 of the district’s buses have been equipped with stop arm cameras at no cost to taxpayers. “Passing a school bus that has the stop arm engaged is extremely dangerous for the children on or near the bus. This program promotes safety for our students while riding our buses which is why we support this,” she said.