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Douglas County schools target law-breaking drivers

Cameras are the newest tool being used to crack down on drivers who don't stop for school buses.

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When motorists pass a school bus in Douglas County, they may want to smile. Chances are, they’re on camera.

Transportation directors in the Superior, Maple and Solon Springs school districts are using cameras to catch the license plate numbers of vehicles that drive past buses while the stop arm is out, a violation that carries a $326.50 fine.

Bus drivers are required to turn on red warning lights at least 100 feet before a stop, according to Solon Springs Transportation and Maintenance director Mark Dahlberg. Red lights activate when the bus stops, the stop arm comes out and a child is about to enter or exit the bus. By state law, vehicles must stop at least 20 feet from a school bus with flashing red lights.

"If you see yellows, be prepared to stop, if you see reds, stop, it is as simple as that," said Superior director of Transportation David See. "Also motorists need to know most kids have cell phones now, so instead of looking for traffic they are head down looking at their phone. Or the younger students just assume you're going to stop, the risk just isn’t worth the reward."

Too many motorists are failing to get the message, officials said.

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"In general, drivers seem to be more distracted, driving faster, and cell phone usage has increased," said Maple School District administrator Sara Croney. "We are working so hard to keep our students safe on our buses. We do need the community to join us in this effort."

Since the first day of classes Sept. 1, bus drivers in the Maple School District have reported eight vehicles that drove past a bus with its stop arm out, roughly two per week. Bus drivers in Superior have reported a stop arm violation every other day, on average.

“These violations have been an issue for a long time, we have decided as a department we are not going to just ‘deal with’ anymore and we are going to try and find a solution to reduce or eliminate them,” See said.

Roughly a third of Superior’s fleet, 10 buses, have been outfitted with internal dash cameras since last winter. They are used on routes that experience the most violations, which include the Billings Park and East End neighborhoods, Wisconsin Highway 35 and Douglas County Road A.

RELATED: School bus safety prompts warning signs, discussion in Maple

The number of violations bus drivers are seeing are comparable to previous years, See said. More citations have been handed out, however, because of the cameras.

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Officials need a license plate number and the vehicle's color, make and model for authorities to issue a ticket, See said. However, bus drivers are often focused on keeping students safe, which makes it tough for them to get all of that information.

“It is difficult to get a plate number since they need to be warning the students and keeping them out of danger. With the cameras now, the drivers radio in the time it happens, bring the camera into the office and we pull all the information from the camera," he said.

He said the cameras, which cost $140 each, are a good investment.

"If we prove to the public that this is being enforced maybe they will stop doing it," See said.

Seven of the Maple buses are outfitted with cameras, including one bus that has both a front and rear camera for better accuracy in catching license plate numbers.

The majority of stop arm violations in the Maple School District, five, were along U.S. Highway 2. One each have been reported on Wisconsin Highway 13, Douglas County Road B and Douglas County Road P.

Croney encouraged drivers to slow down, stay off their phones and allow themselves extra travel time.

"When drivers see amber warning lights on the bus, it is not a sign to gun it and get around the bus," she said. "It is a sign to slow down because the bus is starting to slow down as there is a student pickup happening soon."

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Bus drivers in the Solon Springs School District see fewer stop arm violations than the other districts. Dahlberg said, on average, they report three to five a year.

"It kind of moves around," he said. "If we have three, they're probably in the same area that year, but it's not the same (area) every year. I think we probably catch, I'd say, better than half of them ... and I think that pretty much stops it, because the same people aren't going to do it again if they get caught."

The Solon Springs buses have utilized stop arm cameras for about four years, in addition to five internal cameras. It costs between $250 and $300 to add an external camera. The district still doesn't catch every violator, as the sun's glare sometimes obscures a license plate, but they've caught more of them.

"It is another tool that makes it a whole lot easier, and I think that makes it easier for the cops to prosecute when they have an actual video of the car doing it," Dahlberg said.

He encouraged drivers to watch for school buses.

"Just think about it (like) your kid could be the kid on that bus. When you see a big yellow bus, take caution no matter where you are or what it's doing," Dahlberg said.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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