Disagreement exists over how to hold accountable drivers who illegally pass school buses
By Wade Livingston
At first, Teresa Cochran didn’t see the speeding car coming up behind her stopped school bus. She noticed it, though, when it moved to pass her. On the right. As Capital High School students were exiting the bus.
Cochran, a veteran bus driver, had the “STOP” arm extended. The bus’ lights were flashing. The crossing arm was deployed.
“Everything was in place,” Cochran, now the transportation supervisor at East Bank Bus Terminal, said. But the car kept coming.
“He was able to stop his vehicle within a foot of hitting my students.”
Cochran, parked near the corner of Randolph Street and Ohio Avenue, made sure her students were OK and tried to have a “conversation” with the car’s driver. He sped away. Three “good Samaritans” took off after him. And, in the bus, some of the kids jotted down his license plate number.
Close calls — such as the one Cochran had on Charleston’s West Side — have prompted Kanawha County Schools to install hi-definition camera systems on their buses. Ideally, the cameras would hold accountable drivers who illegally pass school buses. They are able to capture license plate numbers and, in some cases, law-breaking drivers’ faces. Not all counties, though, can afford camera systems such as those used by Kanawha County. A different, more affordable camera system — one that’s being tested locally — could provide an alternative. But a big question remains: How can offending motorists be held accountable?
Illegal “drive-bys” happen “every single school day,” Keith Vititoe, director of security at Kanawha County Schools, said Friday. “It’d be impossible to determine exactly how many. One [survey] was conducted back in April [and] showed 90 in one day, just here in Kanawha County alone. That’s just one county. You consider that with every district in the state; it’s a pretty pervasive problem.”
Vititoe stood next to a Kanawha County school bus equipped with an eight-camera AngelTrax system — which the county currently uses — and a new, less expensive four-camera system that it’s testing. The new cameras looked a bit like fish eyes, and three of them were visible on the driver’s side of the bus. Two were mounted toward the front of the bus, underneath the driver’s window, and faced different directions. A third camera perched high on the bus’ body, near the back of the vehicle, to provide “overwatch” — a bird’s-eye view.
The bus to Vititoe’s right is the only one in Kanawha County equipped with the new four-camera system. Jerry Young, electronic crew leader at Kanawha County Schools, said he expects to have video from the new cameras next week, after a “firmware upgrade” happens. At that point, Kanawha County Schools’ officials and the state Department of Education will be able to compare the capabilities of current camera systems with the new one, the manufacturer of which Young would not specify.
“We’re trying other systems as well,” Young said. “We’re looking for the best system to accomplish what we need to do to [ensure] the safety of the children.”
The retired law enforcement officer said that, from his experience, people illegally pass stopped school buses because they’re in a hurry.
“It takes time to load and unload children, so they get impatient,” Vititoe said. “And they go ahead and drive around a school bus. They think they have the opportunity.”
Vititoe described the scenario of a kid crossing in front of the bus, dropping something and turning around to pick it up — only to be hit by a motorist who, sitting behind the bus, couldn’t see the child. He said that motorists might think twice and keep their impatience in check if they knew they were being monitored.
Michael Pickens, executive director of the Office of School Facilities at the Department of Education, said the state is always looking for things that might address illegal-school-bus passing. The department is interested in the data that Kanawha County will get, he said, and he called the county’s safety initiatives “proactive.”
But Pickens said the department doesn’t have the funds to incentivize bus camera installation across the state. While future incentives of this kind are “not out of the question,” he said, right now, “there’s nothing in place.” Schools have to get creative with their funding at the county level, he said.
The big question, though, in terms of addressing illegal passing, is how to hold motorists accountable.
“I understand that law enforcement doesn’t have the time to run around and do a full investigation of every traffic violation,” Vititoe said. “It’s just not possible. But if we are in a position to provide basically everything to them on a silver platter, then that would decrease the investigation time. And, hopefully, we’ll have more charges filed — and more convictions.”
But, according to Capt. Aaron James, bureau chief of Community Policing for the Charleston Police Department, that may not be the case.
Even videos showing a driver’s face can be disputed, James said. Glares off windshields can make it tough to identify drivers. And even some high-definition images of a person’s face can be questionable.
Moreover, James said it would be difficult to cite the owner of a vehicle based solely on a tag number picked up by a camera. “The owner may not be the violator,” he said. And what if the vehicle was jointly owned — whom do you cite?
In James’ mind, education needs to precede enforcement. Some motorists might be confused, he said, on where it was legal to pass a stopped school bus. He cited MacCorkle Avenue in Kanawha City as a prime example. The question is what constitutes a controlled-access highway — the only place it’s legal to pass a stopped school bus in the opposite direction. The only controlled-access highways in the Charleston area, James said, are the interstates — I-64, I-77, I-79 — and Corridor G. On roads like MacCorkle, even where there’s more than just a painted median, oncoming traffic on the opposite side of the road must halt for a stopped school bus.
James said that he and his department welcomed the opportunity to sit down with Kanawha City Schools — and other partners — to talk about safety solutions.
Teresa Cochran said that, in her 11 years of driving buses, most drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses aren’t caught. Aside from the safety issue, she views it as lost money. But on that day at the corner of Randolph Street and Ohio Avenue, she wasn’t thinking about ticket revenues.
Cochran’s kids had gotten the license plate number. She called it in. And the three Samaritans caught up with the driver.
“And I was able to actually identify the driver,” Cochran said. “I spent about four hours between the police department and the magistrate for court that evening, but when I left around 10:30, I was told he was fined the maximum.”
Reach Wade Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5100 or follow @WadeGLivingston on Twitter.