CLARKESVILLE – As the 2019-2020 school year gets under way across Georgia, state and local officials remind all drivers of the laws pertaining to stopping for school buses that are loading or unloading.
In Georgia, when an officer catches a driver, the penalties include six points on the driver’s record, up to a $1,000 fine, and a possible court appearance. A conviction for a driver under age 21 constitutes a license suspension.
But many systems, including Habersham County, have installed stop arm cameras on many of their buses to help put more eyes on the road for those drivers who pass stopped school buses.
“Adding stop arm cameras to our buses is one of the best things we have ever done in the area of student safety,” says Habersham County School Superintendent Matthew Cooper. “I have been absolutely disgusted at the number of people right here in Habersham County who are willing to pass a stopped school bus when the lights are flashing, and the stop arm is out. I have also been saddened by some of the tragedies that have been in the news. Drivers need to be aware of the real danger in passing a school bus when the red lights are flashing, and the stop arm is out. The danger is striking a child who may be waiting for the school bus or who may be crossing the roadway.”
For a time, the law in Georgia changed regarding when to stop on a four-lane or wider roadway separated by a center turn lane. But that law changed back earlier this year. Now, all traffic from both directions must stop.
“I do not think there is any doubt that our implementation of stop arm cameras may have already saved a life here in Habersham County,” Cooper says. “The use of stop arm cameras has definitely created more awareness of the issue. I am proud of the leadership demonstrated by Tim Dockery and Stephanie Walker, who lead our transportation department. These leaders were instrumental in having stop arm cameras placed on our school buses. We are also very proud to be working with the Habersham County Sheriff's Office and with Gatekeepers on this very important initiative.”
When a vehicle passing a school bus is captured by a stop arm camera, the owner of that vehicle will receive a citation by mail charging a $250 civil penalty.
Doug Dyment, president of Gatekeeper Systems of Washington, Delaware, which provides Habersham County’s stop arm cameras, says violations drop by as much as 50% when stop arm cameras are used and citations are issued.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that all 50 states have laws requiring vehicles to stop in both directions on undivided highways when a school bus has its red lights flashing and stop arm extended.
“School bus drivers are on the front lines of these incidents, often watching in horror as motorists race by their young passengers, endangering them as they get on and off their bus,” Dyment says.
Gatekeeper’s system uses high-definition cameras, digital recorders and supporting software mounted on and around the stop arm and school bus. The stop arm camera systems capture license plate information, even in low light or inclement conditions.
Most children killed are between 5 and 7 years old, and most of the fatal incidents occur in the 10-foot area around a regular yellow school bus.
Katie Sharkey works for Bus Patrol America in Virginia, another camera provider that serves several school districts in Georgia.
“We have the ability to go into school districts and sit down with them and figure out where they’re having issues and what the problem looks like in their community and come up with a solution where we’re able to still offer the free stop arm cameras,” Sharkey says. “But not only are we able to do that, Bus Patrol is unique than any other vendor that does that because we actually offer other free safety equipment on the inside of the bus with our program.”
That free interior safety equipment could include free internal cameras with optional live remote viewing.
“I use this example all the time, but it’s the world we live in now unfortunately,” Sharkey says. “Say there’s an active shooter on the bus and that bus has our system on it, all that driver has to do is press the button and anybody on the notification list – it can be the transportation director, the superintendent, it can be the sheriff himself – will get a text on their phone or tablet.”
After logging in, those officials can view real-time audio and video from inside the bus, accompanied by GPS location information.
Sharkey says the larger school systems served by bus patrol make it possible for the company to accommodate smaller systems.
“I typically go into a school district and sit down and take with them,” Sharkey says. “I understand what these guys go through and I understand their workflow. Some districts only want to target their worst routes. Some districts want to target all their buses. Every school district looks different. We really just tailor it to their needs.”
Sharkey says no matter the size of the school system, school bus stops are the same.
“I’m in Atlanta a lot because it’s such a hub in Georgia, but if you get off the main interstate and travel around the little streets, it’s just like you’re in a little small community,” Sharkey says. “There might be more kids getting on at the bus stop, but the bus stop is just the same as in Jefferson, Ga., that has 10 buses. We’re still talking about kids and we’re still talking about people not hitting their little bitty bodies. It doesn’t matter if it’s New York City, N.Y., or a tiny little coast town in Georgia.”
Bus Patrol went into the Burke County School System earlier this year.