By David Levinsky - www.phillyburbs.com
TRENTON — The swinging red stop sign on school buses could wind up becoming more than just a warning.
Legislation moving through the New Jersey Legislature would authorize school districts to install cameras on their buses to catch motorists who illegally pass.
The bill authored by Assemblymen Greg McGuckin, R-10th of Toms River; David Wolfe, R-10th of Brick; and Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, would create a five-year pilot program allowing towns and school districts to contract with vendors to install, operate and maintain school bus monitoring systems on their vehicles to assist with the enforcement of the no-passing law.
Under the bill, video of suspected violations would be sent to the police department in the town where they occur for review.
If the police concur, a traffic summons would be issued to the owner of the vehicle.
The bill also would increase the fines for violations on the no-passing law to $300 and $500 for all offenses from the existing $100 for first-time offenders and $250 for subsequent offenses.
The revenue from the fines would be directed to the town or school district to support the program.
An earlier version of the bill also called for five penalty points to be assigned to a violator’s license. However, that penalty was removed prior to a hearing on the measure Monday before the Assembly Education Committee.
The committee voted unanimously to release the measure.
Supporters said the bill isn’t intended to be a Big Brother-type intrusion or money grab, but rather a tool for increasing schoolchildren’s safety.
“I am totally anti-red-light cameras, but this is a different story,” Education Committee chairman Patrick Diegnan, D-18th of South Plainfield, said Monday during the committee hearing. “If you talk to any bus driver, literally every day, every day somebody passes a school bus when kids get on and off.”
Last year, 1,582 traffic summonses were issued for illegal bus passing, including 71 in Burlington County, according to the New Jersey Judiciary.
Tamara Dietrich, director of legislative affairs for RedFlex Traffic Systems, which manufactured bus arm and red-light cameras, told the committee that an estimated 17,000 children visited hospitals in 2006 because of accidents that occurred around school buses.
Cameras can also be installed to monitor activity inside school buses.
“This is a technology that can make buses safer inside and outside a cab,” Dietrich said, noting that the five-year pilot would permit schools to use the cameras to prove the technology works.
Only one part of the bill drew opposition at Monday’s hearing: a provision specifying that the video footage from the cameras would not be considered a public record obtainable by the public either through the state’s Open Public Records Act or a common law legal action.
The New Jersey Press Association opposes that section, arguing that the footage should be accessible to the public unless specific circumstances warrant that it be withheld.
Lawmakers rejected the association’s argument, saying they wanted video footage of children on school buses to remain off limits to the public.
“I don’t think I’d want anybody getting a hold of pictures of children on school buses,” said Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce, R-26th of Parsippany-Troy Hills.
Parents at bus stops in Cinnaminson on Tuesday said they have seen cars pass buses dropping off their kids and supported using cameras to catch the violators.
“I see it happen all the time,” resident Lynn Farrell said at her son’s stop on Riverton Road. “Just last Friday morning, I saw three cars just drive right by. The morning is the worst because people are rushing to get to work, so I like the idea of cameras.”