A Column of News & Comment by Senator James L. Seward

School is back in session across New York.  For many students, it is a return to a familiar routine, but for some, it is the start of a completely new world.  For all of us, it is time to think of safety first.

In New York State, approximately 50,000 drivers illegally pass a stopped school bus every day – a staggering number.  This misconduct endangers the lives of children trying to get to and from school and it must be stopped.

Several steps have been taken in New York to combat this dangerous and illegal behavior.  Operation Safe Stop is a cooperative project supported by the New York State Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee, the New York State Education Department, the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, the New York State School Bus Contractors Association, the student transportation industry, and state, county, city, and local law enforcement agencies.  Their mission is to promote school bus safety through education enforcement efforts.

This past May, during a one-day enforcement effort, State Police and local law enforcement agencies ticketed 640 drivers statewide for illegally passing stopped school buses.

The first thing a motorist needs to know is the law itself, which can vary a bit from state to state.  In New York State:

  • Drivers must stop when the school bus red lights are flashing;
  • Even on divided, multilane highways or school grounds, drivers are required to stop for flashing red lights;
  • Penalties for illegally passing a school bus range from $250 – $1,000 fines, points on your license, and/or possible imprisonment.

That final point is one that needs to be addressed further.  The penalties for illegally passing a school bus are simply too light – especially when a child’s life could be in danger.

Current law provides that an individual convicted two or more times of speeding in a construction zone be subject to a sixty-day suspension of his or her drivers’ license. Passing a stopped school bus two or more times, however, does not currently carry such a penalty. There is no doubt that passing a stopped school bus possesses as much risk to life and limb as speeding in a construction zone and should carry appropriate penalties.

I have helped pass legislation in the Senate that would increase penalties for illegally passing a stopped school bus.  Additionally, a bill that would deter dangerous drivers from committing traffic infractions and traffic misdemeanors in a school traffic control zone by doubling fines for these offenses has also received senate approval in the past.  Unfortunately, the state assembly has not even brought these bills forward for consideration.  I will continue to advocate for their full legislative passage so they can be sent to the governor for his final consideration.

One key measure that was recently signed into law clears the way for school districts to install stop-arm cameras to catch drivers who unlawfully pass a stopped school bus. Up until now, a ticket for illegally passing a stopped school bus could only be issued when a police officer witnessed the crime.  Allowing schools to use cameras to catch lawbreakers will lead to additional arrests and increased safety for students.

Enhanced school safety must also be a priority.  In recent years, I have supported a number of initiatives designed to keep our kids safe.  Bills passed in the senate include measures to: increase the ability of schools to hire qualified security personnel; create new state funding mechanisms for infrastructure investments that improve school safety; increase access to school-based mental health services; expand state actions and intelligence coordination to protect schools against attack; and strengthen penalties for crimes on school grounds.

Our schools need to be safe, so teachers can teach and students can learn – without fear.  While these bills have not received assembly approval, they remain priorities of mine.  I will continue to advocate for their adoption so schools will have all the tools necessary to keep students safe.