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At stops, some school buses snap images of scofflaw drivers

If lawmakers agree, tickets to be mailed

By Christina Pazzanese
Globe Correspondent / August 22, 2011

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Drivers who ignore the flashing lights on school buses may one day find an unpleasant surprise when they open their mailboxes.

A pilot program underway in Medford, Quincy, and Seekonk has outfitted school buses with cameras to record scofflaws in real time as they breeze past buses when children are getting on or off.

Cameras mounted behind the bus’s extended stop-sign arm capture vehicle license plates of any traffic coming from both directions on the street. Video images are then fed to local police for review to assess whether a moving violation took place. If the answer is yes - and if a measure pending on Beacon Hill should become law - a citation would be mailed to the vehicle’s owner.

Mayor Michael J. McGlynn of Medford said he has long suspected that some drivers ignore bus lights, but he and school officials were taken aback by what they’ve learned since October, when the city began using cameras on just one of the city’s 18 school buses. So far, 112 violations have been caught on camera over the 105 days that were filmed.

“It was far more than I expected,’’ McGlynn said. “I don’t think anyone had an idea that it was this severe.’’

The numbers have been similarly eyebrow-raising in the other two municipalities, which have been enrolled in the trial monitoring since the spring.

According to SmartBus Live, the Providence company running the pilot program, 57 violations have been recorded in Quincy over 55 days monitored; in Seekonk, 45 violations were documented over 53 days monitored.

Proponents say the cameras - and the steep fines they would generate - can act as a more practical and cost-effective deterrent than stationing police around town to try to flag down motorists. The camera system is also more comprehensive, they say, than the annual one-day bus safety campaign run by the state Registry of Motor Vehicles each fall called Yellow Blitz.

With fines of $250 for first-time violators and $500 for repeat offenders, the cameras could also serve as a useful revenue enhancer for cash-strapped municipalities.

“A lot of people don’t believe this happens,’’ said Jeremy O’Connor, president of SmartBus Live. “Then the first time they see it, they say, ‘Oh, yeah.’ ’’

The company, which launched in 2007, serves clients in several states where the law allows cameras, including Rhode Island, Georgia, Maryland, and Virginia.

A Globe photographer and reporter observed 11 drivers pass a school bus as it picked up Medford summer school students on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge after a field trip to MIT earlier this month.

Under state law, drivers cannot now be issued citations solely on the basis of videotaped transgressions. The testimony of a police officer or bus driver who observes the violation is necessary to enforce a ticket.

But the bill under review in a House committee would allow cities and towns that want to use cameras to be able to submit recorded video data as evidence of a violation.

Representative William M. Straus, House chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, said the bill is comparable to an existing law that permits cameras to catch toll evaders on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

“It’s an even stronger case [in that] it’s even more offensive and dangerous for people to pass school buses,’’ he said.

Although some issues still need to be ironed out, such as how long filmed recordings would be stored and which municipal officials would have the authority to enroll their community in a monitoring program, Straus expects the bill has a good chance of making it out of committee this fall.

The bill calls for cities and towns to decide if they want to use cameras on school buses, he said. McGlynn said the initiative has convinced city and school leaders that more needs to be done to step up school bus safety.

Should the legislation become law, McGlynn expects Medford will purchase a system to expand the use of cameras to additional buses. The hope, he says, is that revenue from the anticipated citations would help pay for a police officer to focus solely on school bus patrol.

Kevin Shea, legislative director for Representative Paul J. Donato, the Medford Democrat who sponsored the bill, said the intent is to assist communities that feel drivers could use another reminder of the importance of school bus safety, not to become Big Brother.

“This is really a public safety concern,’’ he said. “This isn’t looking to grab somebody at 5 in the morning because they ran a red light.’’

Christina Pazzanese can be reached at cpazzanese@globe.com.