Earlier this month, a Charlottesville City Schools student was hit by a car while trying to board his school bus.
In Albemarle, the School Board has been trying to equip the division’s buses with external cameras to document and fine drivers who pass buses while their lights and stop arms are engaged.
However, due to a technicality in the state code, Albemarle would be unable to enforce the violations it hopes to document.
“There are people who endanger children when committing violations like these,” said Dean Tistadt, chief operations officer for Albemarle County Public Schools. “We believe these cameras are a deterrent and we’d like to get theses cameras in place.”
As endorsed by the Albemarle School Board, the division would contract with a private firm that would monitor the documented violations and notify police. The police would then review the photographs and confirm which incidents are violations. The owner of the vehicle would then receive a ticket by mail.
While statute § 46.2-844 in the Code of Virginia states that a driver who passes a stopped school bus that is loading or unloading children “is subject to a civil penalty of $250,” and that “any prosecution shall be instituted and conducted in the same manner as prosecutions for traffic infractions,” the statute includes no language that allows for the delivery of tickets through the mail.
As a result, to enforce the violations, Albemarle County police officers would have to drive to the vehicle’s registered address and deliver a summons by hand — a move that police say they do not have the resources to support.
“And the car could be from out-of-state,” Tistadt said. “What happens if the car is from New York or North Carolina?”
A similar state statute — § 15.2-968.1, which allows the use of cameras to document traffic violations at intersections — permits a summons for this type of violation to be “executed by mailing by first class mail a copy thereof to the owner, lessee, or renter of the vehicle.”
Tistadt and Albemarle’s schools have a problem with this discrepancy.
“We believe the language of this statute was deliberately written to prohibit school divisions from implementing programs like these,” Tistadt said. “So now we’re trying to find a creative solution.”
During the 2012-13 school year, Albemarle ran a 41-day pilot study in which cameras were attached to the sides of two school buses: bus 99, which travels U.S. 29 north, and bus 158, which travels Hydraulic Road and West Rio. In that time, the cameras recorded 79 violations: 31 for bus 99 and 48 for bus 158.
“These two buses are in a relatively urban area so the rate is probably higher than the average for all buses,” said Jim Foley, director of transportation for Albemarle schools. “Although these numbers cannot be directly extrapolated, our best estimate for all 157 buses is over 6,000 violations per year.”
Albemarle’s next move was to attempt to get the General Assembly to add language to the statute that would allow for service by mail for tickets generated by school bus cameras. However, House Bill 2116 — sponsored by Del. T. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg — failed in subcommittee.
Tistadt said Albemarle could proceed with the effort of documenting violations and mailing summonses. However — because of the absence of language in state law — the county could do nothing if an individual decided not to pay.
“The question is what you do with the people who don’t pay,” Tistadt said.
Jim Henderson, assistant superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools, said the division is preparing to conduct a survey, in partnership with city police, to tally the number of violations in the city.
“And we’ll probably do that more frequently now,” Henderson said, adding that if his drivers notice numerous violations occurring in a concentrated area, they will notify police.
Both Henderson and Tistadt said their bus drivers try to document violations on their own, but stressed that noting a vehicle type, license plate number and description of the driver is difficult when the driver’s focus is on the children.
Phil Giaramita, spokesman for Albemarle schools, said the division and police department are continuing to collaborate to find an alternative solution in lieu of changes to state law.
“The desire is there by all the parties, and where there’s a will, there is generally a solution,” Giaramita said.