School bus safety equipment on display at the New York...

School bus safety equipment on display at the New York School Bus Safety Summit in Great River on Thursday. Credit: John Roca

Patrick Harrigan, superintendent of the Half Hollow Hills Central School District, recalled a time when the only video of cars passing stopped school buses as children were getting on or off came from parents — and there was little the school district could do about it. 

"Before I saw BusPatrol cameras [installed on school buses], what we would see in our community was parents posting on Facebook their cellphone videos of cars passing school buses and bringing it to our attention," he said. "... But there really wasn't a lot you could do, as a school district, in terms of enforcement."

He added: "We often hear why can't there be a driver assistant or matron on every bus. We just can't," noting his district has 7,500 students and school buses make "8,000 stops a day."

Half Hollow Hills, which participated in a pilot for the program in 2018, is one of 71 school districts in Suffolk County's school bus camera program that BusPatrol operates. Harrigan said in an interview that BusPatrol reported there were 5,475 citations issued in his district last year, the program's first full year of operation. "My hope is it declines" this year, he said.

Harrigan was one of several speakers at the inaugural New York School Bus Safety Summit, held in Great River on Thursday, sponsored by BusPatrol, a Virginia-based company, and the nonprofit New York Association for Pupil Transportation. More than 100 people attended.

State Sen. Tim Kennedy, (D-Buffalo) who sponsored state legislation allowing municipalities to install cameras on school buses, addressed the gathering.

"Because of your advocacy ... we are safer in our communities," he said. "Now if someone chooses to be so boneheaded to pass a stopped school bus, then that individual is going to be held accountable."

Yet one Suffolk County legislator, Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who attended a portion of the summit, said in an interview that he no longer supported the camera program and planned to introduce a measure in the county legislature to eliminate it. And an official with a national advocacy group for motorists said there were better ways to ensure children's safety.

Jason Elan, head of external affairs at BusPatrol, which has an office in Hauppauge, said the camera program in Suffolk County was "the largest program of its kind in the State of New York." BusPatrol also operates programs in Hempstead Town, other parts of New York and in other states.

Karoon Monfared, BusPatrol chief executive, said the camera program can be a "powerful tool to support law enforcement to curb reckless driving behavior." He said 50,000 "illegal passings" of school buses occur every single day in New York State, citing information from the governor's office of traffic safety.

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison praised the school bus camera program as a way to help change driver behavior.

"Unfortunately, the thing that moves the needle to get people to do certain things ... I have to state that I prefer for this not to be the case, but it is — enforcement, producing summonses and getting people to understand we can hold you accountable," Harrison said. "We can't be at every single school bus stop."

Trotta, in a phone interview with Newsday, reiterated his criticism of Suffolk's school bus camera program as a "scam" and a "cash grab." He said motorists get "gotcha" tickets for passing a bus on the opposite side of multilane roadways that are not in residential communities. Newsday has reported that Suffolk's program took in nearly $25 million last year.

"I'm all for giving someone a ticket if they're in a residential neighborhood and there's a child getting out of a bus and someone passes a school bus," Trotta said. But he said that in many cases of the tickets, they're on roads where "there's no children crossing the road. ... There's not even many houses across the road."

Trotta said he had asked the legislature's counsel to draft a bill that would eliminate the program and plans to present it at the May 23 meeting.

Jay Beeber, director of policy and research for the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association, said that according to statistics from the National Transportation and Safety Board, there were 0.4 fatal school bus passing collisions in the United States "on an annual basis. That's less than one every two years in the United States."

He added, "While there may be a lot of [school bus passing] violations, it doesn’t necessarily mean there's a lot of injuries or fatalities."

Beeber said there were "better ways" of enhancing children's safety, such as having bus drivers or aides accompany the children across the road.

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