There were 85,608 school-bus-camera violations from May, when the program began issuing...

There were 85,608 school-bus-camera violations from May, when the program began issuing fines, until December, according to the Virginia-based contractor that operates the program. Credit: James Carbone

Tens of thousands of motorists in Suffolk were captured by school bus cameras during an eight-month span in 2021 for purportedly failing to stop, yielding roughly $12.1 million in revenue, according to county officials.

There were 85,608 school bus camera violations from May, when the program began issuing fines, until December, according to a report created by BusPatrol America, the Virginia-based contractor that operates the program.

The bulk of the proceeds is split between the county, which received about $6.6 million, and BusPatrol, which collected about $5.4 million, Suffolk spokeswoman Marykate Guilfoyle said. About $77,000 went to East End municipalities that adjudicate their own violations.

While most of the county’s revenue will roll into a public safety fund, $1.2 million will be disbursed to school districts, and $125,000 will be spent on a new public safety campaign, Guilfoyle said. Legislative documents prepared in October of last year indicated officials initially anticipated $10.5 million revenue for 2021. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Suffolk County’s school bus camera program has yielded about $12.1 million in revenue in less than a year, according to Suffolk County officials.
  • There were 85,608 tickets mailed out from May of last year, when the program began issuing fines, until December.
  • Several education and transportation officials laud the program for creating safer streets, but some elected officials are calling for a review. 

County officials said last year’s total revenue reflects payments received and noted some tickets have been dismissed or remain in dispute, while others remain unpaid or are not yet fully paid. Violators have 30 days to complete payments, so much of December’s revenue would spill into this year, county officials said.

It’s unclear how many tickets were dismissed, but according to Jean Soulière, chief executive officer of BusPatrol, roughly 5% of people contest them.

The cameras have captured several startling incidents, including a 12-year-old boy getting struck by a motorist who drove past a stopped bus in Brentwood on Nov. 18, according to video released by the county and Jessebel Hernandez, the boy’s mother.

Hernandez is grateful her son was not seriously hurt and commends the bus camera program for helping police track down the motorist who slammed into him after he stepped off the bus and crossed Grand Boulevard to go home. 

“Imagine, the driver just asked my son if he was OK and then he left my son there; for him, nothing happened. If there was no camera, there was no way to find the driver," Hernandez said. She filed a police report and said the driver was found in less than 24 hours because of the video. This helped her file a car accident claim to cover her son’s steep medical bills.

“The bill was almost $5,000, [and] his medical didn’t cover. That means if it wasn’t for the insurance of the car, I’d need to pay, and how am I going to pay that?” said Hernandez, 32, a single working mother from Brentwood.

School buses at the Suffolk County Transportation Bus lot in...

School buses at the Suffolk County Transportation Bus lot in Ronkonkoma last April as officials announced the camera program would become operational May 1. Credit: James Carbone

Several other videos released by the county show other near-misses, with some clips of children avoiding cars being driven past stopped buses.

The Suffolk County Legislature unanimously approved the camera program in 2019 after school districts said motorists passing buses were putting children in danger. Fines established by state law start at $250 for a first offense and are higher for subsequent violations.

There are 71 Suffolk school districts, including BOCES, participating in the program and 4,634 buses equipped with the technology, Soulière said. Huntington Coach Corp. is not yet allowing the equipment on about 500 buses, Soulière added. Huntington Coach did not return calls for comment.

Four school districts in Nassau County are opting into the program with another vendor, Nassau spokesman Christopher Boyle said. 

A change in behavior seen

Since the program launched, Suffolk officials said other videos reveal more motorists are stopping on multilane roads, especially while driving on the opposite side of the bus. Several education and transportation officials are also noticing a welcome change in driver behavior.

“I would say it’s been successful. Safety is always a top priority, and year after year we were seeing so many bus stop-arm violations,” said Yiendhy Farrelly, who is on the Suffolk County Safety Committee and is president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

“We have definitely seen a decrease in those violations, which is great because it’s ultimately enhancing safety," added Farrelly, who also is the superintendent of the West Babylon school district. 

Richard Gallagher, director of transportation in the Bay Shore Union Free School District, agreed.

“Overall, I find it very well-received. People are slowing down," said Gallagher, who also is on the Suffolk County Safety Committee. "Before this program started, we were getting 95 passes a day in the Bay Shore school district, and now the passes are lower. They’re more in the 70-a-day [range], and they continue to drop.

“A higher number of passes that we never caught before are being caught, which is making it safer for kids because statistics show us that the recidivism is very low. It’s good because we’re getting people to change their attitudes toward passing school buses.”

Soulière said 98% of folks do not get fined again. BusPatrol data from a reference safety program shows that ticketing rates drastically dropped over time.

Critics call for a review

While many see the technology as a deterrent that helps protect children, there are some calling for a review, such as the presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature, Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), who highlighted several issues raised by his constituents.

Concerns include how long amber lights remain on before turning red; violations from buses conducting pre-trip inspections outside “geofenced” or virtual perimeters; ticketing on highways where visibility might be hindered; and whether more exemptions should be carved out, McCaffrey said. 

According to state law, motorists approaching a stopped school bus from either direction must stop, including on divided highways and multilane or two-lane roads. The camera program affords some reprieve by not ticketing drivers traveling in the opposite direction of a bus on divided highways with a physical median, such as large barriers, fences, guardrails or very wide grassy dividers.

A school bus, with red lights and stop signs displayed,...

A school bus, with red lights and stop signs displayed, in Amityville on March 25. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Divided highways that fall within this exception include, but are not limited to, sections of: Babylon-Farmingdale Road; Broad Hollow Road; Cross River Drive; Deer Park Avenue; Middle Road; Nesconset Highway; Nicolls Road; North Ocean Avenue/Patchogue-Mount Sinai Road; North Road; Nugent Drive; Port Jefferson-Westhampton Road/Captain Daniel Roe Highway; Ocean Parkway; Sills Road/Patchogue-Yaphank Road; Suffolk Avenue; Sunrise Highway; Veterans Memorial Highway; and William Floyd Parkway, according to county officials.

“I have some serious concerns. We regularly receive complaints from people about the administration of the program," said McCaffrey, who said he helped several motorists get tickets dismissed, including some received on Lamar Street outside a bus yard in West Babylon.

"There are some examples where we think that it’s an overreach, or as I call it 'the gotchas' that do not imperil the safety of the students. Some of them are instances when school buses have red lights on and are just testing their buses, making sure their lights work, and people are getting tickets. We don’t know in what other areas this is happening.

“Why are all those tickets being given? How many people are saying, 'OK, I’ll just pay it, I can’t take off from work'? I made it perfectly clear to them if they don’t fix the gotchas, this program is in jeopardy,” McCaffrey added.

County officials said the Lamar Street situation was addressed by extending the geofencing limits. County officials also said that amber light signals are turned on between 300 feet and 100 feet before a planned stop and remain on for at least three seconds, allowing enough time for a safe stop.

Legis. Anthony Piccirillo (R-Holtsville) and Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said they have fielded numerous complaints from drivers who believe they were wrongly ticketed.

“I am calling for a total review of the program because we want to strike the right balance between safety and government overreach, and we’re not at that place yet,” Piccirillo said.

“I have gotten hundreds of complaints, and 95% are warranted. I had one yesterday where the bus was moving with the stop arm out; there is no way a child is getting off a moving bus,” Trotta said. “This is a money grab.”

McCaffrey and Trotta initially supported the program, but Piccirillo was not yet in office when it was voted on.

Kate Kramer, of Brightwaters, who was ticketed on Fifth Avenue on Feb. 10 in Bay Shore, called the program “draconian” after her hearing request was denied because she failed to sign a form. She said the worst part was getting an overdue notice in the mail and then calling to find out her request for an appeal was rejected.

“What’s the percentage of people who don’t sign and just get denied a hearing? What if you make an honest mistake? It shouldn’t be because I didn’t sign a form. There is really no other recourse?” Kramer said.

The Suffolk County Safety Committee made several recommendations to the county and contractor, including adding road signage, additional bus driver training, and providing school districts with citation data, including high-risk zones. BusPatrol released the top 20 citation locations, which represent 8% of all ticketing locations, according to Soulière.

It cost more than $27 million to install the equipment on 5,000 buses and will take several years before BusPatrol begins to reap any profit, Soulière said. 

“People just wanna go, go, go, and we don’t think about who is next and what can happen. They’re supposed be three times more careful because kids are coming out of the bus,” said Hernandez, the mother from Brentwood.

“You can go to a court to fight a ticket, but you cannot fight the life of a person," she said. "If a person dies, there is nothing else you can do.”

With Arielle Martinez

Latest videos