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Pennsylvania School Buses With Cameras Issued 8K Violations Last Fall

Following a 2020 state law targeting illegal bus-passers, safety tech company BusPatrol says it has equipped 1,000 school buses in Pennsylvania with cameras that captured just under 8,000 violations since August 2022.

School bus stop sign
Shutterstock/Jerry Horbert
(TNS) — The road to a new way of protecting Pennsylvania students from traffic began in 2017 as Allentown mom Amber Clark walked her daughter, Olivia, across the street to board a school bus for the third day of kindergarten.

"I heard a car backfire," Clark recalled. She swiveled her head to see a white car, a blur really, flying toward her. She scooped up Olivia and ran. Then the car passed the bus despite its flashing red lights and extended stop sign.

Fast forward to 2023: An increasing number of school buses across the state are now armed with automated video cameras to help enforce the law against passing the vehicles while students board and disembark — a development linked to Clark's moment of terror and a parents' campaign that followed.

At least 21 Pennsylvania school districts began using the technology at the beginning of this school year, including seven in the Philadelphia suburbs. When a bus is stopped for children, the cameras document violations, which carry a $300 fine.

BusPatrol, a Virginia-based safety tech company that supplies the camera systems to almost all the Pennsylvania districts that use them, said it has equipped 1,000 yellow buses in Pennsylvania with cameras that captured just under 8,000 violations from late August through November last year.

"Affecting behavioral change and driving culture is hard," said Steve Randazzo, executive vice president of BusPatrol. "I can't alone get folks to stop texting and driving and being distracted behind the wheel because cars are being designed to distract you."


As she ran, Clark said she smacked the driver's side window. "He looked up from his phone, was laughing at something," she said. "He didn't slow down."

Clark and other parents began taking videos of school-bus passing violations in the Lehigh Valley, posting them on Facebook and attending community fairs to educate people about safety.

A 2020 state law makes it easier to hold the owner of a car that illegally passes a school bus liable based on video evidence. Local police departments examine school-bus footage to verify violations. Civil fines of $300 are mailed to offenders, but no points are assessed against their license.

Before, it was difficult to catch and punish drivers who passed through the safety zone around a stopped school bus. Either a police officer had to witness the violation and write a ticket, or a witness needed to provide the color, make and model of the vehicle; its license plate number and a description of the driver to prompt an investigation.

A friend's ticket for using a borrowed E-ZPass got Clark thinking and she learned about school-bus cameras, then legal in other states but not Pennsylvania. She asked the school board and city council to look at it, getting nowhere.

"You know those cartoons where there are tumbleweeds and whistling wind? It was like that," Clark said.

But she kept pushing. She figured her state senator, Pat Browne (R., Lehigh), had the power to do something, noted his district office welcomed walk-ins, and honed an elevator pitch. He wasn't there, but a staffer listened to Clark's story and put her on Browne's schedule.

The senator, who lost reelection last year and currently is Gov. Josh Shapiro's nominee for state revenue secretary, said he'd write a bus-camera bill. State Rep. Mike Schlossberg (D., Lehigh) agreed to work on a House version. Social media and word-of-mouth connected the local activists with like-minded parents elsewhere in the state, creating a lobby for change.

Within about 17 months, the law was enacted — legislative warp speed.


On vehicles equipped with BusPatrol's technology, a video camera attached to the side of the school bus behind the stop sign sweeps 180 degrees and records vehicles overtaking the bus while its red lights and stop sign are engaged. It also snaps a license plate photo.

Footage of violations is stored in the cloud and sent to the municipal police department, where an officer examines it to approve or decline to issue a ticket.

For instance, if a driver on the other side of a concrete median from the bus does not stop, the system might flag it as a violation — even though it's legal to pass there, said Jeremy Melber, finance director for the Phoenixville Area School District. It also is not an offense if a vehicle is halfway past a bus before its stop-arm is fully extended, he said.

BusPatrol's AI engine, known as Ava, is always refining analysis of the images, for instance, by learning to disregard parked vehicles, bicycles and other objects cluttering the background, Randazzo said.

The fines pay for the program. Under the law, the provider of the camera systems receives $150 of the $300 penalty. The school district gets $100 and local police get $25. Another $25 goes to a state grant program promoting bus safety.

The business model has raised concerns. "School bus stop-arm cameras are another of the photo-based traffic enforcement 'solutions' looking for a problem," said the National Motorists Association, which has a vocal membership in Pennsylvania. The group also objects to enriching for-profit companies by fining drivers for "technical" violations.


So far, Pittsburgh is BusPatrol's largest customer in the state.

"As motorists on the road, you need to follow the law," Wayne Walters, superintendent of Pittsburgh schools, said last August at a news conference on the installation of cameras on 150 buses.

BusPatrol officials say they've discussed a proposed contract with the Philadelphia School District. While middle and high schoolers take SEPTA to class, the district has hundreds of yellow buses for younger students.

Christina Clark, spokesperson for city schools, did not respond to questions on the status of talks with the firm.

The Phoenixville Area School District in Chester County and Spring-Ford School District in Montgomery County signed early with BusPatrol, and they had cameras in time for fall 2021.

But there was a delay while state authorities developed protocols to allow companies to access motor-vehicle records while protecting privacy, officials from both districts said. BusPatrol handles the processing and mailing of tickets.

Melber said Phoenixville negotiated a five-year contract with BusPatrol to equip its 75 buses with camera systems at no cost to taxpayers, the company's standard offer to districts.

"If we get nothing, it means that people are not passing school buses illegally and our students are safer."

Jeremy Melber, finance director for the Phoenixville Area School District

"We are not looking at this as a moneymaker," he said. "If we get nothing, it means that people are not passing school buses illegally and our students are safer."

Phoenixville's cameras generated 56 violations in September; 104 in October, and 89 in November, Melber said. Sixty tickets were issued in December.


PennDot has no data on the number of tickets issued statewide so far because the law, Act 38 of 2020, does not require school districts to report violations to the state, a spokesperson said.

Pennsylvania school officials say the camera program is too new to determine whether it has altered driver behavior but believe that is likely over time. BusPatrol says its experience in other states shows violations can drop up to 30 percent.

What's clear is that automated cameras have assumed a bigger role in traffic enforcement in the state. Most larger cities and towns in Pennsylvania already have automated red-light enforcement, legal since 2010, and the state also uses photos to ticket drivers who speed in highway work zones.

And crashes on Roosevelt Boulevard dropped 36 percent after two years of a trial of speed-enforcement cameras on the arterial road. That program expires later this year. Lawmakers are considering whether to extend and expand it.

Backers of the camera program say they will come to deter violations, similar to how drivers pump the brakes when they see a state trooper ahead on the highway.

"I hope people learn to respect the bus," said Lora Sanderson, director of transportation in the Spring-Ford district. "You don't want to wait until something horrible happens to say, 'We should have done this.'"

Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.

©2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.