Mike Bernard of Bernard Bus Service, Chatfield, exclaimed, “I don’t understand how there can be confusion? Stop arms on school buses are great big, red signs with flashing red lights that say ‘STOP!’ STOP means STOP!”
Bernard has been in the bus business for 36 years. The family business, in its 76th year, serves the Chatfield, Rushford-Peterson and Mabel-Canton school districts. He’s seen numerous drivers drive around bus stop arms, endangering students. Says Bernard, “Our drivers see at least one motorist a day drive through a stop arm. Sometimes three or four. I’ve even seen people pass the bus on the right side as students are getting on or off!”
“Once, there was a father waiting with his kids for the bus at the roadside. He literally had to grab one of his kids out of the way when a car passed the bus on the right!”
The youngster wasn’t injured, but it was a very close call – so close that the car clipped off the buses’ side view mirror.
Passing a bus with its stop arm deployed and warning flashers on is not only dangerous, but highly illegal. Motorists face a $500 first-offense fine. A second offense is $1500 or more. More importantly, violators risk hitting students causing disabling and potentially life-threatening injuries – or worse, fatalities. Passing on the right can result in criminal charges.
Marc Presbty, manager at Harmony Transit Company with 15 buses, said, “Our drivers also see at least one drive-through a day, sometimes more, especially along Highway 52.”
Prestby said that holding violators accountable used to be a difficult process. “These incidents happen so fast that the bus driver has little time to get the car’s license plate number and detailed descriptions of car and driver.”
Law enforcement needs all of that detailed information –without it, law enforcement typically will not pursue the matter.
Chad Wangen, Transportation Director for Lanesboro Schools, says that catching stop arm violators is a challenge. “I try to focus on the license plate number and the color of the car.”
If he can he will also try to get the make and model of the car and a description of the driver. When he submits information to law enforcement he typically doesn’t hear back if charges result.
Wangen said, “The sheriff tells me they mail a ticket to the person. But often it is my word against the driver – they’ll often deny it. It can be tricky getting a violator cited.”
Now, thanks to digital video camera technology and a multi-phase grant program from the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety, numerous Minnesota school buses are equipped with stop arm video cameras. These cameras capture crystal-clear video of vehicles approaching a stopped bus from the rear and as they pass to the front – digitally documenting stop arm drive-through drivers.
With the stop arm extended, the cameras begin recording. In the event of a drive-through, the bus driver pushes the “Panic Button,” saving the previous three minutes of video that’s to a hard drive aboard the bus. The video can be downloaded, reviewed and sent to law enforcement.
The cameras provide a detailed recording of exactly what happened, where and when. The video file can then be sent to the appropriate law enforcement agency, whether the incident occurred on a city street, county road, or state highway.
Harmony Transit was part of Phase 1 of the State grant program. The cameras were installed in July 2022. Of the 15 videos Marc Prestby has submitted to law enforcement since school started in 2022, there have been two convictions. Others are pending.
Said Prestby, “One violator tried to contest the citation, despite the video evidence.” The night before going to court the driver decided not to fight the charge.”
The driver was fined $500 and sentenced to 50 hours of community service. Second offenses are even more expensive. Some can result in criminal charges, especially if an injury or fatality results.
Prestby added, “Word is getting out about the stop arm video cameras – and the two convictions.”
Harmony Transit’s grant award totaled $35,000 to outfit 15 buses. Prestby adds, “The school district paid to have interior cameras installed, separate from the State grant. The interior cameras have also helped to reduce disturbances inside the buses.”
Bernard Bus Service has 32 camera-equipped buses and was a part of Phase 2 of the State grant program, receiving $82,069 for cameras. Bernard Bus paid for the in-bus cameras out of their own funds.
Bernard said, “We recorded 21 drivers in February 2023 alone. Consider that there were 15 school days in February. That’s at least one a day.”
Those numbers are even more dramatic considering there are about 13,000 buses on Minnesota roads each day. Bernard has personally seen as many as four drive-through incidents in a single day. He once had a semi-truck pass the stopped bus on the right side. Many drivers are simply distracted, often by their cell phones.
For more information on the Minnesota stop arm camera grant program, visit https://dps.mn.gov/divisions/ots/Pages/traffic-safety-grants.aspx.
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