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Stop-arm cameras hit red light in Albemarle
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During the 2112-13 school year, Albemarle County School Bus 158 documented 48 vehicles ignoring school bus stop signs in 41 days.
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Aaron Richardson | Sunday, July 10, 2016 at 7:28 p.m.

  An Albemarle County plan to add stop-arm cameras to school buses has hit another speed bump.

Attorneys and county school division staff stopped plans to install the cameras this summer, after the county attorney’s office said current legislation does not allow the companies that operate the cameras to access Department of Motor Vehicles records.

Legislation requested by the county and approved during the 2016 General Assembly session allowed summonses generated by the cameras to be mailed to offenders.

County officials had hoped that legislation would pave the way to get the cameras operational so drivers illegally passing a stopped school bus could be more easily ticketed.

Albemarle County previously has operated red-light cameras at the intersection of Rio Road and U.S. 29, but the legislation enabling those cameras is clearer, said John Blair, senior assistant county attorney.

“The red-light camera statute explicitly allows the vendor to access the DMV database,” he said. “The statute that passed [this year] does not have explicit authorization for the bus camera vendor.”

Legislation proposed by the county School Board in 2015 included that language, but it did not pass.

“The Albemarle County attorney’s office continues to review the code amendments to determine the legality of various options for school bus cameras,” Blair said. “Another option could be a School Board request for the General Assembly to provide school bus video-monitoring vendors explicit authority to enter into agreements with the DMV for vehicle owner information.”

The legislative stumbling block does not completely rule out the cameras’ use. Falls Church City Schools operate stop-arm cameras on their buses, and rely on the police department to provide DMV records to the camera supplier.

“The way that we are structured in Falls Church, we are partnered with our police department, we have not had any issues,” said Falls Church schools Superintendent Toni Jones. “We are just literally putting our program back in place, and it was very successful for us.”

Falls Church operated cameras from October 2013 to May 2015, before an opinion from Attorney General Mark R. Herring stopped summonses from being mailed by vendors.

The Falls Church solution could work in Albemarle, Blair said, but county schools staff said pulling DMV records and reviewing citations would overburden the police department.

“The idea of having the DMV review done by a police officer is not something that they are prepared to do with existing resources,” said Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer for the Albemarle school division. “The idea with this was to have a turn-key solution with a third-party vendor.”

Arlington County operated a camera system for a week in September, but has not reactivated it, said Kevin Reardon, Arlington schools security coordinator.

Arlington had aimed to restart its program this summer, but put it on hold, as Albemarle did, after the legislation that passed did not allow bus camera vendors to access DMV records.

 “It is in the hands of the attorneys. We know Falls Church has been doing it, and that solution has been passed on to the county attorney and the schools’ attorney as a possible solution to that issue,” he said. “No final decision has been made.”

Before the cameras were shut down, Jones said, they proved their worth.

In Falls Church, the cameras generated 995 citations between 2013 and 2015, which paid for the cameras and police staff time to review the photographs and access DMV records and provided some money to county coffers, Jones said.

“We have found that, even after transferring some money to the police department … we have made a little money off of the cameras,” she said. “Our school board made a commitment that any revenue we made would go back to student safety.”

Both Falls Church and Arlington County contract with American Traffic Solutions for their bus cameras. Albemarle has not yet solicited proposals for the cameras, said Jim Foley, director of transportation for the Albemarle school division.

A pilot study of the cameras determined that Albemarle could issue as many as 6,000 citations a year.

With the next General Assembly session six months away, there is no timeframe for when the cameras might become operational.

“If you don’t do it right, people will find out, ‘hey this isn’t legal,’ and we could go through a lot of effort all for naught,” Foley said.

 

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