Bethel School District to install cameras on stop-sign paddles

The Bethel School District is preparing to crack down on drivers who pass school buses when they’re stopped to drop off or pick up students.

Cameras will be installed on the stop-sign paddles of 10 out of about 200 school buses – paid for by a private company at no cost to the district – in a program that will test the new system. It was spurred by a state law approved in 2011 that approved the use of such cameras to catch stop-sign scofflaws.

Bethel’s test program will start this fall. District spokeswoman Krista Carlson said the Spanaway-based district will be the first in Pierce County, and possibly statewide, to use the cameras.

Bethel reached an agreement with Pierce County District Court and the county Sheriff’s Department to launch the program in September. That agreement includes hiring a company to maintain and operate the cameras – American Traffic Solutions, which also provides red-light camera services for cities around the country.

The agreement also designates Bethel school resource officers to “help review material so valid violations move forward,” Carlson said.

No tickets will be issued in the beginning; officials will collect data and monitor the effectiveness of the cameras through October. Carlson said ticketing could begin by the end of 2014, once the district has a chance to analyze results.

In Washington state, drivers face a $394 fine for illegally passing a bus.

Carlson said the cameras will help the district catch violators without having to rely on the observations and memory of bus drivers.

“It takes some of the uncertainty out,” Carlson said.

She added that the paperwork when reporting violations requires a lot of specificity, such as license plate numbers and descriptions of cars and their occupants. Bus drivers can’t always provide this information, however, because they are busy monitoring riders and focusing on safe driving.

“It’s a lot of work,” Carlson said. “Staff does file (reports), but a lot don’t move forward for one reason or another.”

She said the district – which covers more than 200-square-miles of suburban and rural areas – is vast and lacks sidewalks, leading to more kids riding school buses.

“There’s a lot of people out here who disregard the stop paddles,” she said.

She said bus drivers witness about 10 to 12 violations on average each week. On a single day this past school year, drivers observed about 50 violators ignoring the stop-sign paddles, she said.

Those figures are a snapshot of a larger problem.

A national study released last year showed more than 1,500 drivers were recorded illegally passing buses in one day. Washington was among almost 30 states who participated in the study, which was conducted by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.

Pierce County’s third-largest school district has discussed school-bus cameras since September 2012 when the school board approved the program.

At the time there was no plan to administer tickets, which stalled the program.

Once ticketing begins, the district will receive a quarter of the revenue.

But Carlson said the district isn’t using the cameras to make money.

“It’s not about collecting fines,” she said. “We really need to protect kids. We don’t want any accidents out here.”