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Smile, You're On School Bus Camera (If You Pass Illegally)

Highline school bus driver Rodger Fowler shows off his stop paddle – and (in the lower-right corner) the camera that captures motorists who ignore the paddle.
KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld
Highline school bus driver Rodger Fowler shows off his stop paddle – and (in the lower-right corner) the camera that captures motorists who ignore the paddle.";

If you illegally pass a school bus in the Highline District, you’re likely to get $394 ticket in the mail.

The district is one of the first in the state to roll out a new school bus camera system that helps nab drivers who ignore buses' lighted stop paddles.

Even after 17 years of driving a school bus, Rodger Fowler is still amazed what can happen when he stops to let students on or off his bus and puts out that paddle.

"I have people run it on purpose," Fowler said, shaking his head. "I have people give me a very unfriendly gesture with their finger, looking right at me. Kids on the ground, lights and stop paddle out, and they go by. It’s like, what? It’s just hard to fathom that somebody can be that callous."

Highline Schools Transportation Director Devin Denney said that a few years ago his predecessor decided to do something about it.

"The former transportation director, Scott Logan, was in his office one day and had a middle-aged gentleman — school bus driver — come to his office nearly in tears. He had seen a very near miss with a motorist who ran a stop paddle, nearly hitting a child."

Enough Is Enough

Logan decided enough was enough. He found a company that installs traffic cameras on the side of school buses. Like red-light cameras, they shoot video and still images whenever a motorist passes a school bus illegally. Violators can get a ticket in the mail.

There was just one problem – the cameras weren’t legal under Washington law. So Logan worked with the state Legislature to get the law changed and with the King County Council to allow the Sheriff's Office to review the footage and mail out tickets.

The program launched in June. It was a welcome development for Rodger Fowler.

"During the last school year I had 80 people run my paddle – which was very disconcerting. At the end of that period is when I got my camera installed," Fowler said.

His is one of 10 buses with cameras on the side.

Wild Ideas On What That Camera's For

The elementary students he was driving home from school on a recent afternoon had different theories about the camera’s purpose: Perhaps it was there to prevent mean people from snatching kids while they're driving. Or to take pictures of the houses and cars on the bus route in case the driver forgot where to go.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "\"And if a car comes along and runs by me, that takes their picture.\" \"Oh, like yesterday?\" a little girl piped up.", "style": "inset"}]]Between routes, Fowler turned around in his seat and explained the camera's true purpose to his tiny passengers. "You know when we stop, and the red lights are going, and the paddle’s out saying ‘stop’? And if a car comes along and runs by me, that takes their picture."

"Oh, like yesterday?" a little girl piped up.

"Like yesterday," Fowler nodded.

"That was my uncle. He didn’t know," the girl said.

"Oh, that’s too bad," Fowler said. "Because he’ll probably get a ticket."

Of the $394 fine, $69 goes to the company that installs the cameras. That makes the program free for the school district. After administrative costs, the rest goes to student safety measures in the district.

In the first month of this school year, the cameras have already captured 172 apparent violations. The King County Sheriff’s Office reviews each one and has written 23 tickets so far.

Denney said the hope is that as word gets out about the new technology, motorists will stop illegally passing school buses. In the meantime, he says when people do run stop paddles, the cameras let bus drivers focus on the students on the street – and not the cars.

"They keep the drivers’ attention where it needs to be at a critical moment. They won’t stop a car – we really need a device that can do that – but they will capture all that information," Denney said.

So far the only other district with school bus traffic cameras is Bethel in Pierce County. Seattle Public Schools plans to add them to buses later this school year.

Year started with KUOW: 2008