Judy Cartwright writes the Community Watchdog column
It's easy to pick up the pace along Rocky Point Road in Middle Island: Much of the 55-mph route is a straightaway through the Pine Barrens and, for long stretches, there are no traffic signals to interrupt the drive.
But there is often a reason to stop near the halfway point of the section between Middle Country and Whiskey roads, a stretch more than a mile long: a school bus stop. It's just south of a curve in the road that prevents southbound traffic -- a combination of cars, trucks and cement mixers from a nearby plant -- from seeing around the bend.
Some children must cross the road either to get to the bus or to get home. And some drivers don't heed the flashing red lights and stop sign that reaches out from the side of the bus.
Mary Alice Jones has seen those drivers in action. On occasion, she has screamed at them. Her son, Kyle, 10, is among the students who must cross the road.
Jones has called a variety of public offices seeking help in making the daily routine safer. After months of trying, she contacted us.
We spoke to Longwood School District transportation coordinator Gail Winsper, who said inquiries about bus stops at that location had not reached her department. A few days later she called to say she had spoken with Suffolk County police and learned that an officer has been assigned to the bus stop. Police told us that the monitoring at the site began in March and will continue until the end of the school year. Several summonses have been issued, a spokeswoman said.
Winsper is also seeking to have warning signs installed so drivers will be prepared to stop. But changing the bus route so children wouldn't need to cross the road appears unlikely: They live on both sides of the road, and buses stop an one side in the morning and the opposite side in the afternoon.
For anyone who presumes passing a stopped bus won't result in a ticket -- think again, even when there's no evidence of a police officer. Bus drivers can report violators by noting the vehicle's license plate number. For a first offense, state law sets the penalty at a $250 to $400 fine, 5 points on the license and possible jail time. Fines for subsequent violations can reach $1,000.
We've read about another potential deterrent, one recently proposed in Albany: The use of cameras attached to a school bus stop arm to record vehicles that pass illegally. It works along the lines of red light camera programs: A ticket is mailed to the owner of the vehicle recorded making the illegal pass.
One of the companies providing such cameras is American Traffic Solutions, which has the contract for Nassau County's red light camera program. Since 2012 the company has installed about 500 cameras on school buses in other states, spokesman Charles Territo said.
Cameras aren't installed on every bus in a district, he said, but are typically limited to bus routes where drivers have witnessed the most offenders.
In New York, the bill introduced last month has the support of the state organization of school district transportation directors. But similar legislation has been offered before, without success. Peter Mannella, executive director of the organization, the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, would like to see it succeed this time.
"We can do cameras in school speed zones, as Long Island is getting ready to do. But you've still got little kids out in the middle of the street that no one is paying attention to," Mannella said.
During this year's annual Operation Safe Stop day, held April 3, law enforcement agencies in 43 of the state's 62 counties issued 1,352 tickets to vehicles that illegally passed school buses. "I realize that we can't be loading and unloading children safely and take down license plate numbers," he said. "So these cameras would take the burden off the bus drivers."
Jones is not reluctant to wave her arms to get the attention of drivers who show no signs of stopping.
"Sometimes I go into the road and look at the drivers and ask what's wrong with them," she said. "The bus driver just shakes her head."
On the afternoon we visited, Jones monitored traffic coming from north and south as if watching a tennis match. When Kyle's bus pulled up and its red lights began to flash, he climbed down and walked to the front of the bus. The curve in the road, just to his right, blocks his view as it does that of approaching drivers.
Kyle looked across the road to his mom and, when she gave the all clear, dashed home across the asphalt.
What drivers should know
When a stopped school bus' red lights are flashing . . .
Traffic in both directions must stop.
The rule applies even on a divided highway or in a school parking lot.
Children are to cross the street in front of the bus.
Lights continue to flash until child has (1) reached the opposite side of the street or (2) if staying on the same side of the street, is 15 feet from the bus.
Illegal passing penalty for first offense ranges from $250 to $400, plus 5 points on license and possible jail time.
SOURCES: State Vehicle and Traffic Law (Section 1174) and NYAPT