Cameras have been installed on the outside of most school buses in Suffolk County. If a motorist drives past an extended bus stop arm, the vehicle's license plate is recorded and the owner is mailed a fine. Newsday's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Suffolk County and Bus Patrol; Howard Schnapp

Frank Nolan used to be a cop chasing down motorists violating the law. Now he drives school buses outfitted with cameras that catch them.

Nearly 5,000 school buses in 66 Suffolk County school districts are part of a monitoring program that has raked in $3.1 million since May — more than the $2.5 million projected for the year, according to Suffolk legislative documents. Those caught running school bus stop-arm cameras have started receiving $250 fines or more after an initial two-month grace period.

$10.5 million How much revenue officials estimate the county's bus camera program will bring in by year's end. (So far, it has generated $3.1 million since May.)

While most of the money was generated in the summer, officials estimate revenue will reach $10.5 million by the end of this year, according to legislative documents. The number of violations is expected to increase significantly during the school year.

"It should have been done a lot sooner," Nolan said, referring to the start of the program. Nolan, 60, retired from the Suffolk County Police Department in 2009 and four years ago became a bus driver for the Longwood school district.

What to know

Nearly 5,000 school buses in 66 Suffolk County school districts are part of a camera stop-arm monitoring program that has generated $3.1 million since May.

Huntington Coach Corp. is still mulling the camera contract, leaving about 500 buses in five districts without the technology to run the program. 

Longwood school district officials and bus drivers hailed the safety plan and hope it continues to change the driving culture in Suffolk County.

"As a bus driver, you have your head on a swivel. Between the kids and the cars, you have to be very involved," he added.

Longwood school officials pushed for the camera program for nearly seven years, even testifying before Suffolk legislators in 2019 that cars were passing their buses more than 80 times a day. John Ryan, a Longwood schools transportation coordinator, Nolan and two other district bus drivers, said they’ve noticed a small shift in people’s driving behavior.

All Suffolk school districts have enrolled in the initiative, which was approved by the county legislature in 2019 after then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill allowing districts to install the cameras. But about 500 buses, serving five Suffolk districts, have not yet been equipped with the technology to run the program. Huntington Coach Corp. said it is mulling the contract with Virginia-based BusPatrol America, which runs Suffolk’s program, the largest in the nation.

"We intend to be a part of the program. There is a contract that has to be arrived at between the camera company and our company, and we’re in the process of finalizing it," Brendan Clifford, a vice president at Huntington Coach, said. Clifford declined to elaborate about the terms being hashed out.

How much are the fines?

$250 for the first offense

$275 for a second offense

$300 for a third offense

BusPatrol America receives 45% of the fee and penalty revenue, while the county gets 55%, to go toward school and traffic safety initiatives. The fine jumps to $275 for a second offense and $300 for a third.

Southampton Chief of Police Steve Skrynecki, who was on the school bus safety advisory committee for the program, said the budget assessment likely demonstrates more drivers are flouting the law than predicted.

"I will tell you that it is suggesting that there are more violations taking place than we even anticipated," Skrynecki said in an interview. "We recognize that as police officers on patrol we can’t see all the violations that school bus companies are reporting to us. The complaints coming from bus drivers are valid. There are a significant number of people on the road that disobey traffic laws."

Assistant Suffolk County deputy executive Steve Randazzo said the revenue aligns with figures from other comparable counties that have implemented the plan. He said it was difficult initially to make revenue predictions without knowing how many districts would enroll.

Meanwhile, the cameras have captured some reckless driving. In one video taken in Bay Shore on Sept. 23, a group of children crossing Wells Drive was forced to suddenly stop when a driver ran the flashing stop sign at around 3 p.m.

Another video from Sept. 23 shows a white truck on North County Road in Stony Brook ignoring a stopped bus in the opposite lane and using a shoulder to barrel past motorists waiting for the bus stop-arm to close.

'The [cameras] made a difference.'

Bus driver George Albertina

 

Longwood district bus driver George Albertina, 54, said he has averted some near-accidents. He once had to pull a kindergartner off the steps of his bus as a car blew past them on the right.

"I saw the child’s life flash before my eyes. A kindergartner would be dead today. … It’s crazy out here. Everyone is in a rush. Everyone needs to get somewhere. The car is their world, and they don’t care about anybody," said Albertina, who tracks the number of cars whizzing by the bus stop-arm.

"The [cameras] made a difference. My previous years, I would have a few people going through my reds a week. Now, I’ve only had three since September 1, which is unbelievable," said Albertina, a former information technology operator.

'We have to expect good people will do random acts of stupidity ... .'

Bus driver Joseph Payton

Officials hope the steep fines will discourage folks from breaking the law. Jean Souliere, chief executive officer of BusPatrol, previously said more than 90% of first offenders do not receive a second summons.

"Two hundred and fifty dollars is a big deterrent, and it should stay right there," said bus driver Joseph Payton, 59, a retired communications specialist with the State Police who also drives for Longwood schools. "It’s going to have people saying, 'Hey, I wasn’t focusing, but now I need to focus.' "

"We have to expect good people will do random acts of stupidity, and that is the added pressure of being a bus driver," he added. "All it takes is for a car to get past a bus and they don’t know if someone is trying to cross the street. But I am seeing a lot less of that now."

Nassau County is still in talks with school districts who have yet to decide whether they will opt-in, according to county spokesperson Michael Fricchione.

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