Since safety cameras were installed on school buses in Suffolk County, the county has grossed nearly $25 million in tickets and late fees from drivers who failed to stop, according to Jean Souliere, founder of Buspatrol, a tech company that has installed cameras on buses. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas; Chris Ware; Kendall Rodriguez; Suffolk County School Bus Safety Program

Fines for drivers caught passing stopped school buses generated close to $25 million in gross revenue for Suffolk County last year under a bus camera program the county has touted as a vital safety tool for children — but also has been met with skepticism by motorists and officials concerned it's a cash grab.

First-time offenders receive a $250 ticket when school buses flash their red lights and stop-arm cameras extend and record drivers purportedly failing to stop during student pickups and drop-offs.

During the program’s first full year of implementation in 2022, the county delivered 118,929 tickets and generated an estimated $24,840,041 before expenses, according to unaudited data provided by the Suffolk County executive’s office and BusPatrol, the Virginia-based company that operates the program in 71 Suffolk school districts, including BOCES. BusPatrol began operating in 28 Nassau County school districts in December.

Fines in Suffolk started in May 2021. The county generated gross revenue of $12,131,538 through 85,634 tickets during the first eight months.

The ticket revenue is split under the county's contract, with roughly 55% allotted to Suffolk and 45% to BusPatrol. The company received about $5.1 million in 2021 and roughly $8 million in 2022, according to documents provided by Suffolk officials. The company's amount for 2022 will be higher by the end of the next quarter, said Vanessa Baird-Streeter, Suffolk's deputy county executive. 

Newsday filed public records requests for total revenues and expenditures under the state's Freedom of Information Law in October but has yet to receive the full data. After the Suffolk County Comptroller’s office provided unaudited revenue numbers, county officials released some numbers in a report prepared by BusPatrol, as well as a separate spreadsheet of expenses and revenue.

A summary prepared by the county contended that preliminary expenses for 2022 stand at more than $29 million, but that includes an estimated $16.4 million for school crossing guards, which previously had been paid by the police district.

An estimated $3 million was put in an education fund, which the county’s School Bus Safety Committee will decide how to spend, according to Baird-Streeter. At least 50% of the fund goes to school districts, while the rest can be used for expenses such as public service announcements and billboards.

The number of tickets issued per month has gradually dropped since a November 2021 peak of 17,267. County and BusPatrol officials said this shows the program met its goal of deterring violators and creating safer conditions.

In November, for example, 9,330 tickets were mailed. In December, there were 9,545 tickets distributed compared to 15,285 tickets in December 2021.

“You want to make sure that when [children] are getting on a bus and leaving a bus they will be safe,“ Baird-Streeter said. She said the reduction in tickets came despite more buses outfitted with the technology.

“Being more cognizant of what’s taking place is going to help everybody,” she said.

But drivers have complained to county legislators and on social media that the program seems focused on "gotcha" moments.

In some cases, drivers said they had little recourse because they never got an initial violation and automatically lost their chance to contest the ticket. Some instances, according to drivers, include being ticketed while the arm is still unfolding, being in front of the bus, or not having enough time to stop, according to Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), who said he's in discussions with Bus Patrol about changes to the program.

On the neighborhood social media app Nextdoor, more than 200 public comments flooded a post last fall when Saralee Rosenberg, 67, of Dix Hills raised questions about the program. Newsday spoke to a dozen drivers, including Rosenberg, who criticized bus camera ticketing operations and administration.

Four drivers said they did not receive a first notice and had an automatic $25 late fee tacked on, plus were not provided any proof the first violation was mailed.

Retired educator and education consultant David Shanker, who splits his time between Rockville Centre and Shelter Island, said he was surprised when a second violation arrived in the mail last fall and he hoped to appeal because he was driving in the opposite direction of the school bus on a divided section of Montauk Highway in Southampton on Oct. 24. Plus, he said the summons wrongly stated he was on Sandy Hollow Road. 

“If a person has an issue with the violation, by law they have a right to a hearing. We were denied that right because we didn’t respond to a first notice and there is no evidence of having gotten the first notice because they wouldn’t provide it,” Shanker said. “You get the feeling it’s a money grab.”

Richard Poplawski, a biomedical engineer from Melville, also said he did not get a first violation after being ticketed on Route 110 in Melville. Poplawski said the bus stopped in front of a 7-Eleven during a time he believes the bus is not scheduled there, and that stopping suddenly would have left him in the middle of an intersection.

“It’s wrong, it’s malarkey. I wanted to get it thrown out,” he said.

Geraldine O’Grady, 64, of Deer Park, got two offenses. One was dismissed, and she is waiting for a second hearing date to contest the other violation since initially learning about the hearing by mail after the scheduled appeal date had passed. On the second summons, she said she was ahead of the bus when the arm extended on Long Island Avenue in Deer Park.

"I’m on Social Security — that’s a lot of money, I’m choosing between heat and food. … The rollout of the program is not fair," O’Grady said.

Jean Soulière, BusPatrol’s CEO, said there has not been a pattern of tickets not being mailed.

"It's not statistically valid to say that it's a pattern," he said. 

While Suffolk has carved out certain exceptions in the program, such as not issuing tickets on some divided highways with physical medians for drivers heading in the other direction, McCaffrey is also considering an additional exception on wide roadways that may lack physical medians but where stopping may create unsafe driving conditions.

Among other issues, he said there are about 6,000 summonses waiting to be reviewed by the Suffolk Traffic and Parking Violation Agency that he hopes will be evaluated under criteria that will better gauge these close calls.

“People are quietly paying these tickets, and they are mad about it because they feel that they were had," McCaffrey said.

“As much as we want to protect the safety of our students, it can’t be at the expense of people feeling like they are being fleeced and this is just a cash cow and not about public safety," he added. 

There will be a renewed focus on advising motorists to prepare to stop when the amber lights turn on, which by law, must turn on 100 to 300 feet before the stop, Soulière said, noting there is ample time for drivers to stop.

“That inconvenience being felt by motorists is not as important as a kid’s life, which is why the laws are drafted the way they are,” Soulière said.

At the Bay Shore school district, Rich Gallagher, transportation director and School Bus Safety Advisory Committee member, said since safety cameras, the number of cars passing buses dropped from about 90 to 95 per day to roughly 60, according to manual counts he conducted.

“That’s a significant decrease. I have heard it from the bus drivers — they’re not as worried" when children are getting on or off the bus, Gallagher said.

Still, for motorists on fixed incomes, the $250 fine is steep and can feel punitive, especially when illegal school bus passing rarely results in serious or fatal injuries, according to Jay Beeber, director of policy and research at the National Motorists Association, an organization that protects drivers’ rights.

Beeber believes there are other ways to curb dangerous driving without creating financial hardships. He supports automated bus camera tickets that deliver a warning for the first offense, "so people can be clear about what they did wrong instead of immediately ticketing them for a lot of money.”

Fines for drivers caught passing stopped school buses generated close to $25 million in gross revenue for Suffolk County last year under a bus camera program the county has touted as a vital safety tool for children — but also has been met with skepticism by motorists and officials concerned it's a cash grab.

First-time offenders receive a $250 ticket when school buses flash their red lights and stop-arm cameras extend and record drivers purportedly failing to stop during student pickups and drop-offs.

During the program’s first full year of implementation in 2022, the county delivered 118,929 tickets and generated an estimated $24,840,041 before expenses, according to unaudited data provided by the Suffolk County executive’s office and BusPatrol, the Virginia-based company that operates the program in 71 Suffolk school districts, including BOCES. BusPatrol began operating in 28 Nassau County school districts in December.

Fines in Suffolk started in May 2021. The county generated gross revenue of $12,131,538 through 85,634 tickets during the first eight months.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Fines for drivers caught passing stopped school buses generated close to $25 million in gross revenue for Suffolk County.
  • The number of tickets issued per month has gradually dropped since a November 2021 peak, which Suffolk County and camera vendor officials said shows the program is working.
  • But some drivers complained that the program seems focused on "gotcha" moments and they didn't receive initial notices of violations.

The ticket revenue is split under the county's contract, with roughly 55% allotted to Suffolk and 45% to BusPatrol. The company received about $5.1 million in 2021 and roughly $8 million in 2022, according to documents provided by Suffolk officials. The company's amount for 2022 will be higher by the end of the next quarter, said Vanessa Baird-Streeter, Suffolk's deputy county executive. 

Newsday filed public records requests for total revenues and expenditures under the state's Freedom of Information Law in October but has yet to receive the full data. After the Suffolk County Comptroller’s office provided unaudited revenue numbers, county officials released some numbers in a report prepared by BusPatrol, as well as a separate spreadsheet of expenses and revenue.

A summary prepared by the county contended that preliminary expenses for 2022 stand at more than $29 million, but that includes an estimated $16.4 million for school crossing guards, which previously had been paid by the police district.

An estimated $3 million was put in an education fund, which the county’s School Bus Safety Committee will decide how to spend, according to Baird-Streeter. At least 50% of the fund goes to school districts, while the rest can be used for expenses such as public service announcements and billboards.

Tickets drop

The number of tickets issued per month has gradually dropped since a November 2021 peak of 17,267. County and BusPatrol officials said this shows the program met its goal of deterring violators and creating safer conditions.

In November, for example, 9,330 tickets were mailed. In December, there were 9,545 tickets distributed compared to 15,285 tickets in December 2021.

“You want to make sure that when [children] are getting on a bus and leaving a bus they will be safe,“ Baird-Streeter said. She said the reduction in tickets came despite more buses outfitted with the technology.

“Being more cognizant of what’s taking place is going to help everybody,” she said.

But drivers have complained to county legislators and on social media that the program seems focused on "gotcha" moments.

In some cases, drivers said they had little recourse because they never got an initial violation and automatically lost their chance to contest the ticket. Some instances, according to drivers, include being ticketed while the arm is still unfolding, being in front of the bus, or not having enough time to stop, according to Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), who said he's in discussions with Bus Patrol about changes to the program.

On the neighborhood social media app Nextdoor, more than 200 public comments flooded a post last fall when Saralee Rosenberg, 67, of Dix Hills raised questions about the program. Newsday spoke to a dozen drivers, including Rosenberg, who criticized bus camera ticketing operations and administration.

Four drivers said they did not receive a first notice and had an automatic $25 late fee tacked on, plus were not provided any proof the first violation was mailed.

'It's malarkey'

Retired educator and education consultant David Shanker, who splits his time between Rockville Centre and Shelter Island, said he was surprised when a second violation arrived in the mail last fall and he hoped to appeal because he was driving in the opposite direction of the school bus on a divided section of Montauk Highway in Southampton on Oct. 24. Plus, he said the summons wrongly stated he was on Sandy Hollow Road. 

David Shanker said he only received a second violation notice...

David Shanker said he only received a second violation notice and is unable to appeal. Credit: Chris Ware

“If a person has an issue with the violation, by law they have a right to a hearing. We were denied that right because we didn’t respond to a first notice and there is no evidence of having gotten the first notice because they wouldn’t provide it,” Shanker said. “You get the feeling it’s a money grab.”

Richard Poplawski, a biomedical engineer from Melville, also said he did not get a first violation after being ticketed on Route 110 in Melville. Poplawski said the bus stopped in front of a 7-Eleven during a time he believes the bus is not scheduled there, and that stopping suddenly would have left him in the middle of an intersection.

“It’s wrong, it’s malarkey. I wanted to get it thrown out,” he said.

Geraldine O’Grady, 64, of Deer Park, got two offenses. One was dismissed, and she is waiting for a second hearing date to contest the other violation since initially learning about the hearing by mail after the scheduled appeal date had passed. On the second summons, she said she was ahead of the bus when the arm extended on Long Island Avenue in Deer Park.

"I’m on Social Security — that’s a lot of money, I’m choosing between heat and food. … The rollout of the program is not fair," O’Grady said.

Jean Soulière, BusPatrol’s CEO, said there has not been a pattern of tickets not being mailed.

"It's not statistically valid to say that it's a pattern," he said. 

While Suffolk has carved out certain exceptions in the program, such as not issuing tickets on some divided highways with physical medians for drivers heading in the other direction, McCaffrey is also considering an additional exception on wide roadways that may lack physical medians but where stopping may create unsafe driving conditions.

Among other issues, he said there are about 6,000 summonses waiting to be reviewed by the Suffolk Traffic and Parking Violation Agency that he hopes will be evaluated under criteria that will better gauge these close calls.

“People are quietly paying these tickets, and they are mad about it because they feel that they were had," McCaffrey said.

“As much as we want to protect the safety of our students, it can’t be at the expense of people feeling like they are being fleeced and this is just a cash cow and not about public safety," he added. 

There will be a renewed focus on advising motorists to prepare to stop when the amber lights turn on, which by law, must turn on 100 to 300 feet before the stop, Soulière said, noting there is ample time for drivers to stop.

“That inconvenience being felt by motorists is not as important as a kid’s life, which is why the laws are drafted the way they are,” Soulière said.

At the Bay Shore school district, Rich Gallagher, transportation director and School Bus Safety Advisory Committee member, said since safety cameras, the number of cars passing buses dropped from about 90 to 95 per day to roughly 60, according to manual counts he conducted.

“That’s a significant decrease. I have heard it from the bus drivers — they’re not as worried" when children are getting on or off the bus, Gallagher said.

Still, for motorists on fixed incomes, the $250 fine is steep and can feel punitive, especially when illegal school bus passing rarely results in serious or fatal injuries, according to Jay Beeber, director of policy and research at the National Motorists Association, an organization that protects drivers’ rights.

Beeber believes there are other ways to curb dangerous driving without creating financial hardships. He supports automated bus camera tickets that deliver a warning for the first offense, "so people can be clear about what they did wrong instead of immediately ticketing them for a lot of money.”

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