Pump the brakes: New cameras target motorists illegally passing stopped buses

Due to new legislation and cameras, you could be sent a $250 ticket if you illegally pass a stopped school bus. Photo by Martyn Kyle Due to new legislation and cameras, you could be sent a $250 ticket if you illegally pass a stopped school bus. Photo by Martyn Kyle

Approximately 6,000 drivers whiz past stopped school buses in Albemarle County each year, putting students getting on and off the bus in jeopardy. New legislation that allows the installation of stop-arm cameras aims to put an end to this dangerous trend.

County school officials say they’ve been advocating for the technology for at least six years, and dozens of aggravated bus drivers signed a petition calling for cameras in March 2018. In the most recent General Assembly session, Delegate Rob Bell, an Albemarle resident, carried and helped pass a bill to allow the cameras.

The politician says putting kids on the bus under current conditions can be scary.

“It’s a leap of faith,” he says. “You put your little one on the bus and hope that it works.”

Bell’s daughter usually catches a ride to Baker-Butler Elementary with bus driver Chris Conti, whose route goes up U.S. 29 North and through the Briarwood neighborhood.

“On a regular, weekly basis, I have cars that run my lights,” says Conti.

From the time Conti turns on his amber lights—the ones that signal drivers to slow down before he applies the red lights, which mean stop—he adds, “You can almost see people hit the accelerator instead of the brake. They go shooting by me on the left, and the students are getting off on the right. It’s a scary situation.”

Recently, in Earlysville, a motorist plowed right through a bus’ stop arm, which Albemarle County Supervisor Diantha McKeel calls “shocking.”

“We’ve been lucky in this community that we haven’t had a tragedy,” she says.

The Board of Supervisors will need to pass an ordinance that matches the new state code to allow the cameras to be installed, and McKeel says it intends to do it before the next school year begins.

Though Albemarle County Public Schools have about 160 buses, somewhere between 20 and 40 vehicles in the most problematic and high-volume traffic areas will be the first to see the new technology, according to Jim Foley, the division’s director of transportation.

He suspects folks often speed past the buses “out of ignorance of knowing the law,” but a $250 fine will likely help educate them. The motion-sensing cameras will photograph the license plate of the offending driver, and then county police will mail a ticket to the car’s owner.

The cameras are proven to be an effective deterrent: Foley says only about 1 percent of offenders get caught more than once.

Says bus driver Conti, “Word will get out and hopefully behaviors will change.”

The news of stop-arm camera installations also pleases Forest Lakes parent Josh Cason, who has been drawing attention on social media to cars passing stopped buses at a bus stop in the southern part of his neighborhood since last school year.

After calling, emailing, and sending videos to the Albemarle County Police Department for months, he was disappointed when he only noticed cops stationed at the stop a handful of times, though the department assured him on Twitter that officers focus on school zones and bus routes.

Says Cason, “I think it’s about time it’s being taken seriously.”