The Fauquier County school division is, over time, equipping its bus fleet with exterior cameras as it buys new buses; it has 12 buses with cameras so far, said Chris Ryman, supervisor for bus operations for Fauquier County schools. Although more than 100 on-camera violations have been reported thus far, prosecuting violators is not easy.
“Right now, if this pace continues for the full 180 days of the school year, we’re looking at more than 400 violations,” he said.
The cameras are positioned at the rear of buses and pointed toward the front to capture the license plates of any cars that pass a stopped school bus when children are getting on or off the bus. Violations have been sent to the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office for further investigation. Most occur on two-lane highways such as Va. 28, U.S. 29 and U.S. 17, Ryman said.
Prosecuting the violations is a “lengthy” process, Ryman said. That was confirmed by Deputy Renee Hibbs, a school resource officer charged with investigating them.
Hibbs said each incident takes three to four hours from start to finish, which includes reviewing the video tape, looking up the vehicle’s owner and then serving the summons in person, a task that usually occurs after hours to catch alleged violators when they are home.
Many times, the drivers live outside Virginia and are only passing through Fauquier County when the infractions occur. In such instances, the sheriff’s office sends a letter but does not prosecute, Hibbs said.
When a summons is issued, the school bus driver and Ryman can be required to appear in court, which can take hours and sometimes requires the school division to find another driver to cover the involved bus driver’s route. That happened between 10 and 12 times last school year but has yet to occur this year, Ryman said.
New law in effect July 1
The laws regarding passing stopped school buses surfaced in the recent battle for the 31st District state delegate’s seat. Republican nominee D.J. Jordan criticized H.B. 1289, an unsuccessful bill that incumbent Del. Elizabeth Guzman and Del. Mike Webert, R-18th, co-patroned in 2018 that sought to streamline the process for citing school bus scofflaws by allowing school divisions to more easily work with school-bus-camera contractors. But the measure would have also kept the infractions from being reported to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, which led to Jordan’s charge that the bill would reduce penalties for breaking the law.
H.B. 2344, a bill sponsored by Del. Rob Bell, a R-58th, of Charlottesville, passed the state General Assembly earlier this year and went into effect July 1. Bell’s law does not keep the citations from being reported to the DMV or prevent them from adding as many as four demerit points on a driver’s record, which is possible under Virginia law. Illegally passing a stopped school bus can be prosecuted in Virginia by a $250 civil fine or as a reckless driving charge, which is a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,500, a suspended driver's license and up to 12 months in jail.
The $250 fine “is not a criminal charge. It’s a civil matter … but it is in fact a four-demerit point ticket,” Bell said Friday in defense of Jordan’s criticism of H.B. 1289. He noted that drivers “have their license taken away” if they lose too many points.
Bell noted H.B. 1289 would have treated these kinds of school bus-related violations like the citations issued for red-light-camera violations, which can be mailed to vehicles’ owners without regard to exactly who was driving because they don’t result in demerit points. Bell said he voted against that aspect of the red-light-camera law and did not want to expand the provision to illegally passing school buses.
It’s not clear how many stopped-school-bus infractions in Virginia are criminally prosecuted and reported to the DMV and how many are processed as $250 civil fines. Some localities, including Arlington County, explicitly say on their website that the citations are not reported to the DMV.
The new law is actually the third passed since 2011 aimed at helping localities and school divisions streamline the ticketing process for citing drivers who illegally pass school buses. The first law, sponsored by former delegate Jackson Miller, a Republican and former police officer who held the Manassas-area 50th District seat, allowed school divisions to install the cameras so infractions could be caught on video tape. A 2016 law allowed the citations to be sent in the mail, rather than delivered by a law-enforcement officer. Bell’s law allows bus-camera contractors to access Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles records to obtain the names and addresses of vehicle owners based on license plates caught on tape, rather than involving law-enforcement.
School bus-camera contractors offer school divisions free cameras – sometimes up to 13 on each bus – to catch and fine drivers who illegally pass buses when they are stopped (with their stop-arms extended) to allow children to get on and off.
The agreements generally stipulate that the money from the fines go first to the contractors to pay for the equipment and then are split between the school division and the contractor, with the bulk of the money – 60 or 70 percent -- going to the contractor, according to Jean Soulier, CEO of BusPatrol America, a Lorton-based contractor that works with school divisions in Richmond, Montgomery County, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
According to Soulier, processing the citations as civil penalties usually allows localities to issue citations – and collect the associated $250 fines – more efficiently. As examples, Soulier said his company has so far issued 640 citations this school year in Bibb County, Georgia, (population: 153,000) as well as 1,200 citations in Richmond and 16,000 in Montgomery County.
Soulier says the system employed by BusPatrol America and similar contractors works because it educates communities and drivers that passing stopped school buses is illegal and that it happens more commonly than people think.
In general, he said, localities don’t have enough police officers to prosecute all violations to the fullest extent of the law.
“Wanting to keep aggressive laws in place that don’t work makes no sense,” Soulier said. “Our program works because we effectively reduce violations wherever we go and we make more people aware of how bad the problem is.”
So far, Fauquier County schools are not taking advantage of the new law and are still processing stop-arm violations without a third-party contractor. The school division once hoped to partner with a contractor to get free school bus cameras but put that idea on hold amid turmoil over the limitations of state law.
Ryman said he hopes the school division might still consider partnering with a third-party contractor in the future.
“In the systems [that do], a portion of the fine money goes back to the school system. In some counties, it’s paying for itself,” Ryman said.
In the meantime, Ryman said the school division is also trying other strategies. It recently fitted five buses with bright-white, flashing strobe lights. Some buses also have longer stop arms that stretch well into the adjacent lane. If drivers pass the stopped bus, they hit the extended arm, which collapses when struck, so as not to damage vehicles, but still gets drivers’ attention.
The Fauquier County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance in 2016 to allow the school division to work with a third-party contractor, but Board Chairman Chris Butler (Lee), a retired Fauquier County Sheriff’s deputy, said he’s not inclined to move ahead with that idea.
Butler said he prefers prosecuting the violations as reckless driving charges, which carry a stronger penalty.
“I support the reckless driving approach versus a civil penalty [where] judges can see prior convictions from repeat offenders. Ultimately, I support a separate moving violation code for passing a stopped bus and not only a large fine but also demerit points for convictions,” Butler said.