Passing school buses remains an issue

When a school bus comes to a stop and extends its stop sign, drivers need to stop.

It seems like common sense, but according to the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, an alarming number of drivers are not getting the message.

A recent NYAPT survey on 35 school districts indicated that 878 bus drivers reported being passed a total of 727 times on Jan. 19, including 88 passes on the passenger side of the bus.

When applied to over 50,000 school buses statewide, the total estimated illegal passing rate would be 41,401 passes for that day, with 5,011 passes on the passenger side.

Peter Mannella, executive director of NYAPT, said that a previous survey done in December reported 44,314 drivers passing stopped school buses, including 6,601 passes on the passenger side.

“These numbers are of serious concern,” he said. “We implore parents and our partners in schools and in law enforcement to help us to increase awareness of the rules of the road. We call on the governor, the state agencies and the State Legislature to recognize this issue as a critical problem we must address together.”

While the survey did not include school districts within Chautauqua County, Sheriff Joe Gerace said illegal passings in the local area are not uncommon.

“With the increase in distracted driving and people’s (bad) driving behaviors … I’m not surprised by (these incidents),” said Gerace, in an earlier interview with the OBSERVER.

According to Ken Schnur, location manager at First Student Inc., a bus contracting service for the Fredonia and Dunkirk central school districts, passing incidents are becoming far more frequent.

“We actually had an incident (recently),” Schnur said. “Our bus was stopped on Liberty Street (in Fredonia) at a daycare with its red lights on, waiting for daycare students to come over to the bus. The driver had to honk the horn three times for the children to stop because there was a van that came and passed the bus.”

Schnur said a lot of drivers simply forget they have to stop whenever they see a bus with its stop sign extended or its lights flashing.

“I honestly think it’s getting worse,” he said. “It’s happening more and more … and it really is a hazard to students.”

Fredonia Middle School Principal Andrew Ludwig noted Fredonia-Stockton Road has once again become a problem area for buses.

“Whether it’s law enforcement or whoever, what they’re saying is that this is a really tough thing to combat,” he remarked. “We just want to keep our kids safe.”

He suggested for kids to snap a picture of a car illegally passing their bus with their cellphones to help police locate offenders.

The School Bus Camera Safety Act, a bill that would allow cameras to be mounted on the “stop arms” of school buses, has been introduced in the State Legislature.

The camera, according to the bill, would capture images of a passing vehicle and its license plate, enabling police to issue a summons to the registered owner of the vehicle. Currently, a ticket can be issued only by a police officer who witnesses the violation.

Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Jamestown, said while he supports efforts to crack down on drivers who pass buses illegally, he does not support legislation that holds the owner of a vehicle liable regardless of whether they were driving.

“This bill makes the owner strictly liable without a defense, which conflicts with our fundamental concepts of due process and fairness,” Goodell said. “I think we need a technical amendment to the bill to make it clear that (the owners) can raise a defense that they were not driving so that the actual driver is the one that pays the fine and suffers the consequences.”

Goodell said such an amendment would make the bill a better deterrent against violators.

The bill is currently being reviewed by the Assembly’s Transportation Committee.

The first-time fine for illegally passing a school bus is a $250 to $400 fine, five points on one’s license, and/or possibly 30 days in jail.

Assistant News Editor Greg Fox contributed to this article.