August 27, 2014

New cameras to capture drivers passing stopped Fort Mill buses

Drivers who pass stopped Fort Mill school buses while the bus has a stop sign deployed soon will be captured by new cameras, and the images will be used as evidence in court.

Shortly after South Carolina passed a law allowing police officers to ticket drivers caught on camera illegally passing a school bus, the Fort Mill School District bought exterior cameras for its buses.

When school buses pull over to drop off and pick up children, an arm with a stop sign extends. Drivers’ ignoring the stop sign has become an issue, schools spokeswoman Kelly McKinney said.

“There are folks that do run those arms, and obviously that’s very scary if you think about a child potentially having to cross the street,” McKinney said. “They’re coming from the other side of the bus, so if you’re running that arm, it’s a blind risk.”

Before the law was passed earlier this year, if the event wasn’t witnessed by a police officer, another witness would have to see the bus extending the stop arm, get the vehicle information and license plate number and identify the driver of the vehicle.

The new law and installation of the cameras makes it easier for officers to ticket drivers and for courts to prosecute them, said Maj. Bryan Zachary, public information officer for the Fort Mill Police Department.

“We’ll review that (camera footage), it will be a large part of our investigation, and it will be used as evidence in court,” he said. “The person will be charged.”

The district has bought five portable cameras that can be moved from bus to bus, said Marc Vigeant, transportation supervisor for Fort Mill schools.

The price for the five cameras, the wiring and installation is about $25,000, Vigeant said, and he hopes installation will be complete by October. The district will place the cameras on buses driving in areas where running stop arms has been an issue, but they will be moved to other buses throughout the year.

The cameras made by the surveillance company Zen-tinel are one of the few stop arm cameras that can be transferred from bus to bus. Each camera has three lenses, Vigeant said, giving it the ability to capture all the essential information.

“We can see the vehicle, license plate and driver of the car,” Vigeant said. “One thing is that we can’t ticket a car – you have to ticket a person. Before now, the cameras haven’t been good enough to capture the face, so now they can do that.”

Drivers who are caught and prosecuted for violating the traffic law can be fined at least $500 and receive six points on their driver’s licenses for a first conviction. The fee rises to $2,000 on additional convictions.

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said the group wants the school district to ensure the cameras are used only for their intended purpose.

“Certainly protecting children is an important goal,” she said, “but there should be policies in place limiting data access and sharing of the video, and limiting retention period – just to ensure that these cameras are used for their intended use, not as an all-purpose surveillance camera.”

The cameras are only activated when the stop arm is extended, Vigeant said, which will ensure that they are only used to capture this type of violation.

He hopes the presence of the cameras will encourage drivers to respect school bus stops.

“I’m not interested in spending district money or having a camera on there,” Vigeant said. “We have cameras just to protect the kids.”

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