SAN ANTONIO - Texas Department of Public Safety troopers have been cracking down on drivers who pass stopped buses this week.
The increased enforcement is part of National School Bus Safety Week.
It's unknown just how many tickets troopers have written during the special enforcement period, but one thing is certain: It's much harder to catch drivers ignoring stopped buses when police aren't looking.
But that's not the case at five San Antonio area school districts. They have thousands of cameras installed on their buses that are watching for violators every day.
Get caught on camera passing a stopped bus illegally and it could cost you $300.
The districts are participating in a program that was started about a year ago and has resulted in thousands of citations, but the KSAT Defenders have learned less than half of the drivers who are issued citations aren’t actually paying them and there's not much that can be done to force drivers to pay up.
In June 2016, the San Antonio City Council passed a new ordinance allowing school districts within city limits to use cameras installed on buses to serve as automated traffic enforcement devices, similar to red light cameras installed in Balcones Heights and other municipalities. The ordinance also created a civil offense and a penalty for violations.
The city passed the law under the guise of increasing student safety. The ordinance reads: "City Council believes a program providing for photographic enforcement and administrative adjudication of school bus stop arm violations and imposition of civil fines for those violations could reduce the number of motor vehicles unlawfully passing a stopped school bus, furthering public health, safety and welfare."
The problem is the law has no real teeth because there's no criminal penalty for violating the law. If someone gets a citation issued by a bus camera and refuses to pay the ordinance states: "No arrest warrant may be issued for a violation of the ordinance, the violation may not appear on a person's driving record, and any outstanding fines may not be reported to a collection agency."
"Some of the teeth of the ordinance relies on the honesty and the desire of the citizen to do the right thing when they make a mistake," said Jack DeForrest, executive director of transportation of the Northeast Independent School District.
The district was the first to add the so-called school bus stop arm cameras to its fleet a few years ago as part of a pilot program that led to the ordinance. NEISD now has the technology on 372 buses and firmly believes the cameras have already increased student safety by reducing accidents.
"We think that just the presence of the cameras alone is a deterrent. We know from some discussions with constituents that people tell each other what happened and that the news is spread through the community, so it becomes a program that is more widely respected and more widely known," DeForrest said. "We think based on our numbers of citations, cars that have passed, reducing over time that it will increase safety for students in the long run."
The technology isn't cheap. DeForrest said each bus is outfitted with roughly $10,000 worth of cameras and other equipment, but the district didn't have to pay for any of it.
"The taxpayers are protected because the taxpayers have spent not one penny to have all this technology and all this equipment placed on these buses. This has been completely at the vendor’s expense," DeForrest said.
The vendor is a company called BusPatrol. According to its website, the company's technology "turns a school bus into a Smart Bus, equipped with video, GPS, telemetry, data processing and archiving."
BusPatrol has signed five-year agreements with NEISD, Judson ISD, Southwest ISD, South San Antonio ISD and South Side ISD. The company provides the cameras at no cost and takes care of issuing the citations to drivers.
"They have a process that identifies the driver, confirms it with a police officer, prepares the citation for mailing to the registered owner of the vehicle and that's all transparent to us," DeForrest said. "The technology that this brings to the bus has added to our ability to safely transport students and better train drivers to do that job."
Judson ISD has installed the cameras on 160 of its buses. Dr. Milton Fields, assistant superintendent of operations, said he too believes having the cameras on buses increases safety for students.
"We were able to outfit all of the buses with video cameras inside and outside of the buses, so it's really helped out," Fields said. "It's been beneficial in terms of the number of citations have decreased. So people are paying attention to what's going on. Even on the videos, you can see some abrupt stops now when the arm goes out or when they put on the yellow lights."
Each district participating in the program is required to submit a yearly report to the San Antonio City Council showing how many violations have been caught on camera.
A review of those records by the Defenders found that many drivers simply refuse to pay the ticket.
Judson's cameras caught 456 violations, which resulted in 323 citations. Drivers appealed 22 violations and only seven were upheld. A total of 308 cases resulted in a fine being leveled against the guilty driver, but only 122 drivers paid the fine. That means only 40 percent of those drivers sent the district a check.
At NEISD, 9,331 citations were issued, 959 people appealed and 516 cases were upheld. Of the 8,888 cases where fines were issued, only 4,302 people paid up, resulting in a 48 percent success rate in the collection of fines.
Based on the agreement with BusPatrol, the districts get a 40 percent share of the fines and BusPatrol gets 60 percent, which is used to pay for the cameras. The districts are required to use their portion of the fines for programs that promote student safety.
"I don't know what could be done to get people to pay a bill, a citation, that they've received, but what we think is that if a person receives a citation is that they're much more likely to stop the next time they see a school bus because nobody wants two $300 citations lying around unpaid. At some point, people try to start doing the right thing," DeForrest said. "We're happy to have it. We weren't ever in this for money. We were in it for the technology and to increase student safety and we think it’s working at about the end of the ninth month."
Judson's Fields said he thinks the program should be expanded to the entire state and a law written with more teeth to compel drivers to pay for their mistakes. Until then, he's still convinced the program is working at Judson and is keeping kids safer than before.
"Any time that you can increase awareness to the people in the community on the loading and unloading process, it's always a good thing," Fields said. "Once you get the citation, you're supposed to pay it and they're (BusPatrol) the ones who collect for that. You need to do the responsible thing. If you violate the law you need to own up."
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