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

Summer will soon turn to fall and along with the change of season will come a change in lifestyle for our young people as school bells ring once again.  For many students it is a return to a familiar routine, but for some it is the start of a whole new world.  For all of us, it is a time to think of safety first.

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

In order to combat this dangerous and illegal behavior, New York has instituted Operation Safe Stop.  The cooperative project is 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.

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, if not more, risk to life and limb as speeding in a construction zone and should carry appropriate penalties.

The state senate has overwhelmingly passed legislation (S.1064A) I strongly support that would increase penalties for illegally passing a stopped school bus.  If enacted, the penalties for passing a stopped school bus and speeding in a construction zone would be the same.  The senate has passed this bill on multiple occasions, but the state assembly has failed to take action.

A similar bill (S.6212A) 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.  Again, the assembly has not even brought the bill forward for consideration.

Another issue which remains a high priority is enhanced school safety.  During this year’s legislative session, I joined with my senate colleagues to adopt a comprehensive package of bills designed to help keep our kids safe.

The bills passed by the senate 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.

Improving security systems, helping schools hire well-trained security personnel, and making certain that individuals who need mental health care can easily access these vital services are significant steps that together, will ultimately save lives.

Our schools need to be safe, so teachers can teach and students can learn – without fear. Unfortunately, the state assembly failed to take action on these school safety measures, even though they had strong bipartisan support in the senate.

Let me be clear – this is not the end of the discussion.  These critical school safety measures will be at top of my legislative agenda in 2019.