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Cobb Hopes Bus Cameras Will Improve Safety

The devices will capture motorists' license plates if they illegally pass a bus that is letting children off, with the first fine being $300, the second $750, and the third $1,000.

With the death of one child and continued violations of the school bus stop-arm laws, the Cobb County School District has launched an initiative to put outside cameras on 102 buses.

The two cameras face forward and backward and sit inside a white protective case about two feet below the red flashing stop sign the buses use to alert drivers to stop. The cameras shoot diagonally in color digital video and can see a license plate from 100 yards, said the district's associate director of transportation, Mike Warner.  

The cameras aim to stop the escalation of motorists who drive around a stopped bus either picking up or dropping off children. Each bus in the district’s fleet of 1,188 averaged a stop-arm violation per school day during the 2010-11 school year, Transportation Executive Director Rick Grisham said.

In fact, Cobb County, the second largest district in the state, ranked second worst among the state’s 180 systems for the number of illegal stop-arm violators, according to a state group that conducted a survey on May 5. Cobb County flagged 1,740 violators.

Only Gwinnett County schools, the largest district in the state with 160,000 students, had more with 2,333 violators. Twenty-eight schools across the state didn't participate in the survey.

In 2009, Karla Campos, a 5-year-old Mountain View Elementary student, was killed as she was exiting a bus. An 82-year-old driver hit the gas pedal instead of the brake as she approached and hit Campos, police said.

On three different occasions during the 2010-11 school year, Cobb transportation officials recorded more than 1,100 stop-arm violations on each report for all of its school bus, which equals an average of one violation per bus.

The new outside cameras cost an additional $200 to install when the district purchases the $1,600 three-camera internal system, Grisham said. The district hopes to have its entire fleet outfitted with both external and internal cameras within the next three years.

“There’s no price you can put on a life, and it’s $200 a bus to capture an awareness,” Grisham said. “I believe Cobb County drivers are just in a rush.”

To make the cameras as effective as possible without distracting bus drivers, they simply have to hit a red button to the left of their steering wheel called an “event marker” to note vehicle violations or a possible fight on a bus. This allows field coordinators the ability to quickly file an incident report without having to go through seven hours of video footage, Warner said.

Marietta parents Sheri Lewis and Mandi Call co-founded Operation Stop Arm to heighten awareness of the growing safety issue. The pair was recognized for their efforts by Gov. Nathan Deal on May 11 when he signed Senate Bill 57 (stop arm legislation) into law regarding the reporting and recording of lawbreakers. The bill went into effect July 1.

Lewis and Call’s efforts were spurred by the death of Campos. Both women’s children attended Mountain View Elementary with Campos.

Twenty-one children under the age of 19 die each year getting on and off buses, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  

“It’s good,” Lewis said, “but I don’t know if it will stop motorists from passing. But now being caught for it, they will now be held accountable and the fine will cause them to look up the law and know when to stop.”

Call said she was sparked to inform the community about the importance of stopping after she watched “cars passing buses all the time” as she waited with her daughter at her bus stop.

“I hope to see violations decrease, but it’s going to take a lot of education and awareness for motorists, parents whose children ride the bus and children who ride the bus,” she said.

Lewis said the first stop-arm violation will warrant a motorist a $300 ticket, the second $750, and the third $1,000 within a five-year period.

According to an Operation Stop Arm handout, it is illegal to pass a bus stopped for passengers on two-lane roads, two-lane roads with a center turning lane and four-lane road without median separation or four lanes or more with a center turning lane.

The only road that is legal to pass a bus stopped for passengers is a divided highway of four lanes or more with a median separation. That way only the traffic following the bus must stop.

With the 2011-12 school year starting Aug. 15, Grisham said the Cobb County School District has launched a public safety campaign with print media, public service announcements, brochures and links on each of the district’s 114 school sites to highlight the importance of keeping county students safe.

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