IRMO - A new law means drivers who illegally pass a stopped school bus in South Carolina are more likely to get hit in the wallet.
The law, signed in June, allows law enforcement to write traffic tickets after reviewing video captured by cameras installed on school buses. Previously, an officer had to personally witness the illegal passing to prosecute - unless injuries resulted and boosted the charge to a felony.
Sen. Thomas Alexander says the lack of consequences contributed to a growing problem he feared would result in tragedy.
It almost did. His measure was stalled in a Senate subcommittee until mid-May when a car struck a 15-year-old Gaffney High School student as she crossed the street to board her school bus. A photo of the scene, which Alexander distributed to his colleagues, showed the teen's shoes lying in the roadway and her backpack on top of the bus. Two weeks later, the bill was on its way to Gov. Nikki Haley's desk.
"My goal is to have better compliance," said Alexander, R-Walhalla, who introduced the measure in May 2013. "It's not about the tickets but the safety of the children."
The Department of Public Safety held a news conference Thursday with Alexander to educate drivers on the law ahead of the 2014-15 school year.
While more enforceable, the penalties for passing a stopped school bus haven't changed: a minimum $500 fee, plus six license points, on a first misdemeanor conviction, which increases to a $2,000 minimum fee on additional convictions. Penalties are higher when injury results.
Between Jan. 1, 2013, through July of this year, troopers and other law enforcement officers issued 159 citations statewide for disregarding a stop arm, though authorities suspect that many more instances may have occurred without being cited. In that same period, the Department of Public Safety received 540 written complaints from the state Education Department about vehicles passing stopped school buses, resulting in troopers being sent to those spots to watch for violators. Troopers also issued tickets during back-to-school enforcement campaigns, following buses in marked and unmarked vehicles, said public safety spokesman, Lt. Kelley Hughes.
In a single day in June, 25 school districts participating in a state Department of Education survey reported 388 illegally passing vehicles, an agency spreadsheet shows. That's a snapshot from less than a third of districts statewide.
Beyond the likelihood of not getting ticketed, officials say, the illegal passing is also partly due to inattentiveness - with drivers looking at cellphones or otherwise distracted.
David Weissman, transportation director for the school district that includes Lexington and Richland counties, said in May alone, there were two accidents in his district involving drivers running into the back of a stopping bus.
His district is among those around the state installing the exterior camera systems on a pilot basis.
When classes start, eight of the 100 buses used in his district will be equipped with exterior camera systems donated by competing companies. He plans to buy systems for 10 additional buses by mid-September. The systems consist of several cameras that videotape different angles of a passing vehicle so law enforcement can identify the license plate as well as the driver. When a violation occurs, the bus driver can push a button to tag that portion of the video for review.
Weissman, past president of the state Association for Pupil Transportation, expects it to take several years for the cameras to become commonplace on buses across the state, due largely to the expense. Adding an exterior system to the four interior cameras his buses already have will likely cost $1,000 per bus, he said.
That's money paid by local property taxes, not the state.
Horry County transportation director Jim Wright said he hopes to buy exterior cameras for 50 of the 350 buses operated in his district by September. He didn't think illegal passing was a problem until he conducted a survey among his bus drivers. Over a two-day period in March, drivers reported 80 violations, he said.
Which system to use - or whether to buy them at all - are decisions left to each district.
In Fort Mill, the district has ordered five portable exterior cameras that can be easily switched between buses, to be used on routes seeing the highest violations, said district spokeswoman Kelly McKinney.