Bethel school bus cameras capture bus stop-sign violators

Drivers in the Bethel School District who breeze past a stopped school bus in violation of the law may find their traffic offenses recorded on newly installed video cameras. The cameras are part of a test project that began several weeks ago and could soon lead to citations being issued to violators.

The school district, which covers just over 200 square miles in east Pierce County, announced Wednesday the results of one week’s worth of video monitoring on five camera-equipped buses. For the week of Oct. 27, cameras recorded 23 violations, according to data collected by the camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions.

Most violations — 78 percent — occurred on afternoon bus routes, about half between the hours of 4 and 5 p.m. Hot spots included Spanaway Loop Road, the Mountain Highway (state Route 7) and 176th Street East.

Bethel is one of the first school districts in the state, and the first in the South Sound, using a state law passed several years ago that permits traffic cameras on school buses.

Arizona-based ATS has contracted to provide services to districts. ATS spokesman Charles Territo said his company is also working with the Highline School District in South King County and with the Evergreen School District near Vancouver.

Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel said there are no direct costs to his district. Territo explained that his company will earn $69 for each recorded suspected violation.

But officials say the main goal isn’t to issue tickets — something that could happen after the trial period ends in a few months.

“The intent is to ensure our kids get on and off buses safely,” Seigel said.

Territo said the system is aimed at changing driver behavior.

Here’s how it works:

The ATS camera is attached to the side of a school bus. When the stop sign paddle is extended, the system automatically detects if a vehicle passes. A video is recorded, and license plate images are captured. (If no one violates the bus stop sign, no video is recorded.)

A GPS device marks the exact location of the potential violation. The videos are reviewed by the Pierce County sheriff’s office school resource officers who work in the Bethel School District. If they see violations, they can turn the information over to courts.

“The cameras provide clear evidence of what happened,” Territo said. But law enforcement and courts determine if a violation occurred.

Seigel said that after the system is in place for a few months, officials will meet to decide when to take the system live.

For now, there are only five camera-equipped buses deployed, but more could be added. And those five buses will be rotated throughout the district in the coming weeks. There are usually about 160 buses on the road each day in the Bethel School District.

Dawn Rowell, who’s been driving a Bethel bus for 13 years, said she sees violations “a couple times a month.”

“We’ve had some close calls,” she said. “With cars running stop-paddles, not paying attention — it’s terrifying.”