On Tuesday, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced 6,000 school buses in Suffolk County will soon be equipped with stop-arm cameras to catch and ticket motorists who illegally pass stopped buses. Credit: Steve Bellone Facebook page

About 6,000 school buses in Suffolk County soon will be equipped with stop-arm cameras to catch and ticket motorists who illegally pass stopped buses, county officials are expected to announce Tuesday.

Suffolk has signed a contract with Virginia-based BusPatrol America to help deter motorists from illegally passing stopped buses to keep kids safe, the county said. The program is expected to start in January.

"This new technology will ensure that our students will be further protected against dangerous driving when they are boarding a bus to go to school," County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo authorized stop-arm monitoring statewide in August 2019. State officials reported that law enforcement ticketed more than 850 people on a single day in April 2018 and projected that drivers illegally pass school buses more than 150,000 times during a 180-day school year.

The Suffolk legislature unanimously approved creating such a program last year after Longwood and Bay Shore school district officials testified that cars illegally passed their district buses more than 80 times a day, putting students at risk. The Nassau County legislature also approved a similar program, and the county is in the process of selecting a vendor.

Suffolk's bus camera program would be the largest of its kind in the country once installation is complete in 48 Suffolk school districts, BusPatrol CEO Jean Soulière said.

Each bus will have six enforcement cameras and an artificial intelligence system, known as AVA for automated violation analysis, that operates when a bus is stopped and red lights are flashing. The cameras monitor up to eight lanes of traffic, and when a violation occurs, the technology snaps a photo of the license plate. BusPatrol then mails a ticket to the driver.

As part of the initial rollout, the program will send motorists a warning instead of a ticket. Fines are set by state law starting at $250 for the first offense, $275 for a second and $300 for a third.

Soulière said that between 95% and 98% of drivers who receive a ticket don’t get a second one. "That’s how we know it works, and we know it changes behavior," he said.

The program won't cost the county or school districts, Bellone said. BusPatrol, which won the bid, will take 45% of ticket revenues, and the county will get 55%, but must spend it on school and traffic safety programs, county spokesman Derek Poppe said.

The contract is being announced as the county faces a fiscal deficit that could balloon up to $1.5 billion over three years.

Legislative budget analysts estimated in a recent report that it would probably bring in $2.5 million in 2021 but said "school bus traffic is still limited during the pandemic and the program is unlikely to reach full operation in 2021."

Ron Masera, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said that while this program is optional, many districts in the county already have opted to participate after witnessing incidents that injured students over the years.

"It is our hope that through a greater awareness, this program will enhance the safety of our students and families at school bus stops," Masera said.

In 2019, BusPatrol conducted a series of pilot programs across New York, including one in Half Hollow Hills. The pilot program captured more than 1,800 stop-arm violations across 17 school buses, with 4.05 stop-arm violations per bus per day in one jurisdiction. Results from the pilot suggest that bus drivers in New York State witness an average of 12.7 million stop-arm violations over a 180-day school year.

Maurita Coleman Simpson, transportation supervisor in the Half Hollow Hills Central School District, said one of the biggest revelations from the pilot program "was that so many motorists have forgotten basic rules of the road that they learned back when they took their written permit or license test." She said one of the most frequent violations is drivers not stopping for buses on the opposite side of a divided major roadway, such as Route 231.

Bellone also announced a new School Bus Safety Advisory Committee that will oversee the Stop Arm Camera Program and develop a public awareness and education campaign to educate residents on the law.

BusPatrol, one of the country's largest school bus camera program operators, has contracts with districts across the United States and is majority-owned by hedge fund OakTree Capital.

BusPatrol, which was founded in 2017, purchased some of its technology from Force Multiplier Solutions, a defunct company involved in a bribery and kickback scheme in Dallas that resulted in a public bus agency's insolvency and convictions against three public officials and two Force Multiplier executives.

BusPatrol officials said the company is separate and independent from Force Multiplier, which an attorney who investigated the scandal for taxpayers, Stephanie Curtis, confirmed, adding BusPatrol purchased Force Multiplier assets after the bribes took place.

Suffolk officials said they vetted BusPatrol before awarding the contract. But media reports and a Maryland county inspector general's office have raised questions about the company's ties to Force Multiplier Solutions.

Former Force Multiplier Solutions CEO Robert Leonard gave about $3.5 million in bribes and kickbacks to several Dallas public officials — including in the form of gifts, gambling money, trips to Las Vegas and campaign contributions — in return for supporting the company's business, including contracts worth $70 million with public bus agency Dallas County Schools, federal officials said. The bus agency became insolvent, and voters decided to dissolve it.

"Although the current vendor claims it is a new company, other than changing the name, except for the CEO, many of the same managers, employees, equipment, and contracts are still in place," the Montgomery County, Maryland, Office of Inspector General said in a 2019 memo examining the contract with the school district.

BusPatrol officials said the company purchased Force Multiplier's intellectual property, contracts and offices. It kept on some workers, including Force Multiplier's former president, Dave Poirier, during the transition but now only has coders left from the defunct company, officials said. Poirier left his role as BusPatrol's president more than a year ago, company officials said.

BusPatrol noted that the Montgomery County school district stayed with the company.

Legal filings in Canada show BusPatrol Inc., a Canadian company that Soulière also leads, used to be known as Force Multiplier Solutions Canada. BusPatrol officials said the Canadian company licensed Force Multiplier's technology and brand in Canada but was not affiliated with it.

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