Generic School Bus (with stop arm)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- School districts throughout Kentucky would be required to install cameras on school buses in hopes of catching drivers who illegally pass them during stops under a bill prefiled last month.

The proposed legislation, sponsored by Rep. Robert Goforth, R-East Bernstadt, would require districts to outfit their bus fleets with stop-arm cameras by Aug. 1, 2023, if passed by the General Assembly in next year’s legislative session. Less populous counties could get a five-year reprieve from the requirement from the Kentucky Department of Education under the prefiled bill.

“We have a serious problem, and we need to make sure that safety is the number one priority for these children,” Goforth said in a phone interview Thursday. “I don’t think that it is unreasonable to make this request.”

Three schoolchildren in Rochester, Ind., were killed by a driver who tried to pass the school bus they were boarding in October 2018. The driver is set to go on trial next month reckless homicide, criminal recklessness resulting in serious bodily injury and passing a school bus causing injury, according to the South Bend Tribune. 

That incident, in part, prompted Goforth to prefile his stop-arm camera bill. Indiana legislators passed a bill in April that ramps up the penalties for illegally passing school buses and allows violators to be charged up to $1,000 in a “safe school” fee. Indiana districts can request to use those funds to purchase stop-arm cameras for their bus fleets under the new law, which took effect July 1.

“It happens all across the country, and we need to make sure that your child or my child or someone else’s child is not the next victim to this because these drivers pass continuously without any type of repercussions,” Goforth said.

A handful of Kentucky school districts have already installed cameras to catch drivers who pass school buses that are loading or unloading students, among them Hardin County Schools. The district began installing the cameras in February.

Data provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts shows that in fiscal year 2019, 12 charges of illegally passing a stopped school or church bus were filed in Hardin County, yielding $1,450 in fines. Prior to that, just eight cases had been opened dating back to fiscal year 2015 with fines totaling $850 in that timeframe.

Jefferson County led the state in the number of cases involving illegally passing stopped school or church buses since fiscal year 2015, with 62 charges in all and $3,930 in fines issued. Throughout Kentucky, 511 charges of illegally passing a school or church bus were filed and $48,789 in fines were levied in the same timeframe, according to AOC data.

Hardin County Schools sends footage captured of cars that pass the bus while its stop arm is extended to local prosecutors for further action, but that wouldn’t be the case under Goforth’s bill. Instead, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet or the third-party vendors who supply districts with the cameras would be in charge of reviewing footage and issuing citations, which could be appealed directly to the cabinet or, if that fails, Franklin Circuit Court.

The cabinet does not currently issue citations for alleged traffic violations, spokeswoman Jordan Smith said in an email Thursday.

The cost of installing and maintaining the camera system is a concern for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said Eric Kennedy, the group’s director of advocacy.

The prefiled bill does not include additional funding for districts, though it allows them to enter lease agreements whereby vendors can recoup up to 80% of civil penalties collected or up to $160 per penalty to pay for the program. The proposed legislation would set civil penalties at the current maximum fines for violations under law: $200 for the first offense and $500 for subsequent offenses within a three-year period.

“Even though there are some aspects of the bill that try to address the issue and I believe would allow for some kind of sharing of fines to go down to the districts, it sets up a pretty robust requirement for the districts to take on essentially a law-enforcement role  in addition to installing the cameras,” Kennedy said.

School districts are already covering about 40% of their transportation costs, which under law should be covered completely by the state, Kennedy said. What’s more, districts are already looking for additional money to cover costs associated with facility improvements required under the new school safety law passed by the legislature this year, he said.

“Essentially it would be an unfunded mandate that we have some concern over,” Kennedy said.

But Goforth pushed back against claims that his prefiled legislation equates to an unfunded mandate on school districts, noting the provision that allows districts to lease with third-party companies to operate the camera system in exchange for a portion of penalties collected. He also said the prefiled bill could be amended to apply only to new buses in school districts’ fleets.

“We’re going to work to make sure that this is affordable for every school district,” he said.

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