Bus cameras aim to protect children, but at what cost?


SMILE: Reflex has partnered with 19 school districts in Virginia to install bus cameras.

By Kaitlyn Speer | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Better look both ways before crossing a school bus and its school district.

Redflex Traffic Systems of Australia is partnering with 19 Virginia school districts, installing cameras on buses to catch drivers who ignore their stop signs.

The camera consists of a single enclosure installed about six feet behind the bus’ stop-arm, monitoring traffic in both directions. The system activates when the stop arm and red lights are displayed, and the children are entering or exiting the bus.

Evidence of violations gathered by Redflex, including video and high-resolution images, is sent to local law enforcement to review and determine whether a violation occurred and whether a driver should be cited. Redflex prints the citation and mails it to the car’s registered owner.

But is it Redflex’s job to issue such a citation?

John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, doesn’t think so.

“(It’s) not a state organization, not the police,” Whitehead said. “What you’re dealing with … it’s a huge money-making scam. It’s trying to find ways to make monies off of the average citizen who makes mistakes. I’ve driven by buses all my life. I’ve never seen anybody ignore a stop sign.

“It’s the corporate police state. (If) they’re going to do that, which I oppose by the way, there has to be some kind of screening device,” he said. “If a bus drives through a neighborhood, it can pick up all kinds of information. They’ll be watching everyone.”

The method used is fairly standard throughout the ticket-camera industry, according to John Bowman, spokesman for the National Motorists Association.

“They’ll tell you, sure, we send all of the tickets to the police officer for review. I’m not exactly sure how diligent that project actually is,” he said.

“I can certainly understand why motorists would think that any kind of traffic enforcement camera (either on a bus or a red-light camera or speed camera) is an invasion of privacy. I would feel the same way. From a legal standpoint, however, the courts have ruled that motorists out on a public road don’t have an expectation of privacy. So, it becomes difficult to challenge the cameras on that basis,” Bowman said.

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services in 2013 reported that 29 states found more than 85,000 vehicles illegally passed 108,000 school buses in one day, according to Redflex’s spokeswoman Jody Ryan.

Redflex is, however, a member of their supplier council, a membership group under the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.

But data from the National Motorists Association tells a different story.

Children are eight times safer riding the bus to school than they are in passenger vehicles, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.

Another NHTSA report said that of the 1,351 people who died in school-bus related accidents between 2002 and 2011, only 123 were school-age pedestrians. But most school children killed in school-bus related accidents during the past 10 years were killed by the bus, not by a passing motorist.

“The risk of a school child getting hit by a passing car (is) miniscule. If we really want to improve safety, we should really be focusing on proper training for school bus drivers,” Bowman said. “They are the ones that are responsible. Overall, (it’s) one more revenue scheme on part of the cameras as they play on the emotions of parents teachers, and people within the school district.”

Chesterfield County Public Schools is the latest school to test drive the stop-arm enforcement product. Seventy school districts in 10 states use Redflex Guardian. Georgia recently selected Redflex to install cameras on 300 buses for one of its school districts.

But bus cameras won’t pay for themselves. If Chesterfield County were to implement the cameras, the school division would only receive $85 of the $250 citation. Redflex, the vendor, would get the remaining $165.

When Chesterfield County ran its pilot study, Redflex cameras mounted on five school buses caught 216 violations in a 32-day period. But the pilot study’s findings failed to mention Redflex lost $2.2 million on their bus cameras across the country last year, according to the company’s most recent financial report.

“The likely volume of citations arising from installment is unknown at this stage, and is a key detriment of future revenue and profitability,” the report continued.

Redflex Student Guardian, the fully automated school bus stop arm camera, was acquired by Redflex Traffic Systems in 2012 for an initial payment of $4.5 million, with potential further payments subject to financial performance measures being met.

“The fiscal year 2013 marked one of the most difficult years in the two-decade history of Redflex,” the report said. “On March 4, 2013, following a five-month internal investigation, we provided comprehensive disclosure of findings to the marketplace regarding violations of company policies and code of conduct, and potential violations of U.S. law.”

Redflex’s net profit after taxes for the fiscal year 2013 was only $7.3 million, down from $15.1 million in 2912. The decline is attributed to the non-North American operations of Redflex, according to the report.

Redflex also continues to seek out different school districts for its bus cameras.

“Student Guardian is a start-up business, experiencing many of the challenges that a new business faces,” said Ryan, the Redflex spokeswoman. “This technology has broad support from a variety of stakeholders, including law enforcement, elected officials and school administrators.”

Ryan’s right. Many elected officials do support this kind of technology.

Former Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell approved an amendment to state code in 2011 with House Bill 1911, authorizing municipalities to adopt ordinances that would allow school districts to contract with vendors and install and operate video-monitoring systems in or on school buses to capture drivers in act of passing stopped buses.

Before heading to McDonnell’s desk, the bill originally was introduced in the House of Delegates by Delegate Jackson H. Miller, and it passed in the House with 96 votes. In the Senate, SB 946 was introduced by state Sen. Janet D. Howell, and it passed with 40 votes.

McDonnell and Redflex’s partnership can be traced to the same year this bill was passed. In fact, Hunton and Williams, a law firm that represents the company, was a McDonnell supporter. The law firm donated $48,175 to his campaign and inauguration between 2010 and 2011.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe also has close ties with Redflex. Hunton and Williams contributed $25,000 to his inauguration, $10,599 to his gubernatorial bid and $10,000 to the state Democratic party. McAuliffe vetoed a bill earlier this year that would have given camera-ticketed motorists a second appeal.

Two years ago, Redflex was involved in a scandal when Aaron Rosenberg, a former executive at the company, said in a civil defamation claim that he was made a “scapegoat” to cover up a long-standing practice of providing government officials with lavish gifts and bribes. Redflex fired Rosenberg and sued him in Arizona for damage.

Chesterfield County Public Schools do not seem concerned with Redflex’s checkered past. Tim Bullis, the community relations director for Chesterfield County Public Schools, told the Chesterfield Observer that school officials are looking forward to working with the company.

“We are confident that the company had addressed their past issues,” Bullis said.

Prince George County already installed the cameras on six buses. In its contract with Prince George County, Redflex said there will be no up front cost to the county.

“Now we’re in the penalty stage and issuing citations,” said Ronald Rhodes, the director of transportation for Prince George County.

Reactions to the school bus cameras is mixed, according to Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.

“It’s still a new program,” Schrad said. “(Law enforcement) are very cautious about adopting a new program. They want to make sure they are following the letter of the law. That’s one of the reasons I told Redflex to talk to the law enforcement agency first, and (they) can tell you whether they feel like they would work out well.”

Kaitlyn Speer is an intern at Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau and can be reached at kspeer@watchdog.org and @KSpeer11