High-def camera pilot program catches faces of motorists illegally passing school buses
By Marcus Constantino, Multimedia reporter, Charleston Daily Mail
When people illegally pass school buses in West Virginia, they’re rarely brought to justice because state law doesn’t allow police to ticket offenders solely based on a license plate number.
Kanawha transportation officials are trying out new technology that can positively identify who’s behind the wheel when a vehicle passes a stopped school bus. During a pilot program between Kanawha County Schools and the West Virginia Department of Education, a set of high-quality cameras has been installed on a Kanawha school bus, constantly looking for anyone who passes while the bus is stopped and the bus’s stop sign is out.
Kanawha school buses are already outfitted with cameras on the inside and outside of the bus. But Mike Pickens, executive director of the Office of School Facilities for Kanawha County Schools, said the new cameras being tested on the Kanawha school bus use cutting-edge technology that can effectively capture a video so clear, the face of a driver of a vehicle passing a school bus can be identified.
“What we’re hearing from law enforcement folks now is it’s difficult to identify the face of drivers in the vehicles who illegally pass school buses,” Pickens said. “With the improved technologies and advanced video capabilities, if law enforcement can identify folks, hopefully it will allow them to be proactive in issuing arrests which will deter illegal passing. '
The Daily Mail reported that only a small fraction of people who illegally pass stopped school buses end up being ticketed or arrested because of a change to state law in 2010. Penalties for passing a stopped school bus were stiffened — the maximum fine was increased from $200 to $500 — but the secondary offense for passing a school bus, which allowed police to ticket the owner or lessee of a vehicle caught passing a school bus even if the driver couldn’t be identified, was wiped from the books in 2010.Kanawha prosecutor Chuck Miller said the stiffened penalties have made law enforcement reluctant to issue citations for passing a school bus unless police can positively identify the driver.
“The more serious the crime, the more stringent the proof,” Miller said. “And certainly, with respect to running past school buses, the penalties are more severe than simply a $5 fine for overtime parking. We have to prove it.
”Pickens said only about five to 10 percent of West Virginia’s counties have invested in cameras that are capable of capturing vehicles illegally passing buses. In most cases, though, the cameras do not produce images clear enough to identify a driver by face.
Jerry Young, electronic crew leader for Kanawha County Schools, said the cameras being tested in Kanawha are high-definition and have a much better chance at getting a clear look at offenders.
“The state is always looking for new technology to improve the facial recognition because it’s not a guarantee the legislature would edit that law,” Young said. “So if they don’t, we have to work with manufacturers of the camera systems to try and improve the technology to provide law enforcement the tools that they need to prosecute people. If you can’t identify that person, it makes it difficult to prosecute, and our kids’ lives are too precious.”
Young said many people are unaware of the laws surrounding a stopped school bus. He said the only time it is legal to pass a bus with its stop sign engaged is on the opposite side of a controlled-access highway.
Not all four-lane roads are controlled access highways and many drivers speed past stopped buses on busy roadways, such as MacCorkle Avenue or Kanawha Boulevard.
Charlie Warner, executive director of security for Kanawha County Schools, said distracted motorists pose a danger to children because it could only take a few seconds glancing at a cell phone while driving to cause a tragic accident while children are crossing a roadway.
“On any given day you can drive down the road and you can see people texting ... you can see people putting their makeup on ... we live in a very hurried society and I believe sometimes they’re in such a hurry, they don’t understand or grasp the severity or repercussion of their actions.”
Warner said he knows a family who lost their child to a school bus crossing accident, so the issue hits home for him. He said the county is considering everything it can to protect its students, and upgrades to the bus camera systems may deter people from running stopped school buses if they faced prosecution.
Pickens said Kanawha transportation officials are gathering data from the pilot program that will be shared with transportation officials around the state at the annual West Virginia Association for Pupil Transportation conference in July. Depending on how successful the pilot project is, the state may look into technology upgrades that could be implemented statewide.
“We know there’s going to be a cost to the counties and to the state, but we don’t know what that cost is yet,” Pickens said. “We can all say there’s not enough money out there to operate school systems but this is so important, we need to look closely at ways to integrate technology into our school bus systems. We just need to figure out what it is we can do.
”If Kanawha County could take clear pictures of each offender caught passing a school bus illegally to police, Miller thinks there would be a lot more people forced to pay up — and hopefully change their driving habits.
“The cameras are probably the best solution,” Miller said. “If you can bring me a case with the driver of a vehicle passing a school bus that depicts their vehicle and their face, I can win that case.”