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State AG: School buses in Suffolk rack up red-light violations

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman released an image

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman released an image of a school bus going through a red light in Islandia. Schneiderman announced results of a state investigation into school-bus safety at a news conference in Yonkers on Oct. 17, 2017. Credit: Office of the Attorney General

School-bus companies based in Suffolk County received tickets for driving through red lights nearly 1,200 times over three years, according to a state investigation unveiled by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman at a news conference Tuesday.

Drawn from data subpoenaed from randomly selected bus companies operating in Suffolk and Westchester counties with contracts to transport students for local school districts, the investigation uncovered a total of nearly 1,500 red-light camera violations in both counties.

The investigation, which focused on eight Suffolk County bus companies, showed that the numbers grew each year during the period covered — with 368 violations issued in 2014, 409 in 2015, and 422 in 2016. Within those companies, there were 154 bus drivers who were repeat offenders, according to the state report.

Schneiderman also said that there is a “serious gap” in state law — the bus companies are not required to report red-light camera violations to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Though the report covered bus companies in Suffolk and Westchester counties, Schneiderman said the investigation shows the problem is widespread throughout the state.

“Unfortunately, New York law has a safety loophole big enough to drive a school bus through,” Schneiderman said at Tuesday’s press conference in Yonkers, held during National Bus Safety Week. “Bus companies can rack up red-light camera violations — yet have no legal obligation to report them to the state, or even use them as part of their evaluation of drivers.”

Speaking on behalf of the nearly 70 school districts in Suffolk County, Lars Clemensen, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendent Association, said Tuesday that this is an issue educators take seriously.

“The safety and well-being of all students is always a top priority. We appreciate the findings of the attorney general’s investigation and support reasonable recommendations that would enhance bus safety,” said Clemensen, who is the superintendent in Hampton Bays.

The investigation did not identify the school districts served by the bus companies nor did it indicate whether students were on the buses when the violations occurred. However, it did note that while some offenses may be minor, in other cases buses “disturbingly” drove straight through red lights, made left turns at red lights and made illegal rights on red.

Tom McAteer, executive vice president at Suffolk Transportation, one of the bus operations mentioned in the report, said that the company “is completely committed to safety.”

Suffolk Transportation has a safety plan for drivers that includes a policy on red-light camera violations, he said.

“There is progressive discipline for drivers who violate the red-light law and in each case the driver is responsible for paying for the ticket,” McAteer said. “It is our belief that a combination of training and an emphasis on safety and the law is the best way to deal with this important issue.”

The investigation by the attorney general found that Suffolk Transportation was issued 55 red-light tickets in 2016.

Schneiderman’s office first subpoenaed general safety records of random bus companies operating out of Suffolk County. The initial review led to a second subpoena seeking records relating specifically to tickets issued to bus companies for red-light camera violations. The report focused only on the red-light violations.

Red-light camera tickets are issued to the bus company, as the owner of the bus. Many bus companies, upon receipt of a ticket, will identify the driver of the school bus who committed the violation based upon company records, and require the bus driver to pay the fine, according to the report.

The information regarding the red-light camera violation is not reported to the state or required to be considered in the annual assessment of a bus driver or the bus company’s record.

Schneiderman is proposing:

n School-bus companies should be required by law to report the number of red-light camera violations in the annual affidavit of compliance filed with the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

n School-bus companies should be required to consider red-light camera violations in its annual assessment of its drivers; and drivers who accumulate three red-light camera violations should be disqualified from driving for a one-year period.

n School-bus companies should be required to provide an annual report to the school districts of their driver’s records, including a record of the red-light camera violations issued and who was driving.

McAteer said Suffolk Transportation would support reporting red-light violations “if the state decided that reporting violations was in the best interest of overall safety.”

The other bus companies named in the state report were Baumann Sons/Acme Bus Corp., East End Bus Lines/Floyd Bus Co., Huntington Coach, John Bosch Bus Co., Montauk Bus, The Trans Group, We Transport/Town Bus.

Tim Flood, executive vice president with The Trans Group, said the company applauded Scheiderman’s recommendations.

“We believe that this effort will ultimately result in the safer transport of students,” he said.

Brendan Clifford, vice-president of Huntington Coach said late Tuesday that the company tracks red light tickets offended by its drivers and has developed policies in connection with offenses including disciplinary action for repeat offenses. He said safety is a top priority.

Representatives of the other companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the state report.

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