Eyes are on you: School buses in 3 area districts getting cameras to catch stop arm violators
Nearly $1.4 million given out statewide to help with safety, education and enforcement
Three area school districts will receive thousands of dollars from the state to install cameras on school buses in an effort to keep students safe as they get on and off school buses.
Aitkin Public Schools, which serves Aitkin and Crow Wing counties, received $41,051 to equip 14 buses with cameras; Fornshell Bus Service, which serves Pillager students in Cass, Crow Wing and Morrison counties, received $63,928 to equip 22 buses with cameras; and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, which serves Crow Wing, Kanabec, Mille Lacs and Pine counties, $41,658 to equip 14 buses with cameras.
The grants were among $1.4 million announced Wednesday, Feb. 8, by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Office of Traffic Safety for 19 schools and transportation companies in Minnesota.
Eric Fornshell, owner/operator of Fornshell Bus Service, said a bus driver’s attention is on watching the students getting on and off the buses and not always on the vehicles approaching the bus.
“Our No. 1 priority is the kids, watching the kids and making sure they’re getting off and on safely,” Fornshell said. “There’s a lot going on all at once, especially in a really dangerous situation like with kids crossing in front of the bus.”
Fornshell said his drivers have motorists passing buses while the stop arm is out on a weekly basis. His company has been working with drivers on reporting the issues — and having an online process through the State Patrol to report violators has helped — but often drivers don’t get a good enough look at a passing vehicle to get a usable vehicle description.
“Hopefully these cameras will help with that,” Fornshell said.
It’ll also be useful to have motorists know there will be video evidence if they do violate bus stop arm laws, he said.
“Hopefully these cameras will help with that,” Fornshell said. “I’m definitely hopeful they will take some of the pressure off my drivers, to be able to have that video reference to help convict, or at least have a conversation, motorists and to bring awareness to the problem.”
Dan Stifter, Aitkin Public Schools superintendent, said the grant will enable buses in his district to be equipped with overview cameras mounted at the tops of buses, which will supplement cameras already in place on stop arms.
“This will give us an even better view of people potentially running the stop arm,” Stifter said. “We’re excited about having the overview cameras just to get a better angle.”
The grant also will allow for updates to existing cameras on school buses, Stifter said.
So far this school year, Aitkin Public Schools has had seven reported stop arm violations, Stifter said. Having additional cameras will allow the district to have more information to share about potential violators — or to more easily determine that a violation did not occur.
“It happens so quick,” Stifter said. “... Hopefully people will be more aware that we now have more tools.”
With the help of the Brainerd Lakes Toward Zero Deaths Coalition, Reichert Bus Service, which serves the Brainerd School District, received a grant in September to purchase 64 stop arm cameras to help identify those behind the wheel who ignore the stop sign and red flashing lights intended to warn motorists of students boarding or exiting the bus.
More grants from the Office of Traffic Safety to install cross arm cameras on school buses are planned.
The current round of grant funding is the fourth phase of awards. In 2022, the Office of Traffic Safety announced more than $10 million in grant awards in phases one through three. A future Office of Traffic Safety announcement will highlight phase five grantees. The phase six grant application review is underway.
The grants will reimburse schools and transportation companies for purchasing and installing stop arm camera systems and supporting software programs.
The program is a partnership with law enforcement agencies including the Minnesota State Patrol, police departments and sheriff’s offices statewide. Phase four grants, the latest iteration of the stop arm camera grant project, go to 19 schools and transportation companies. Grant applicants provided support letters from local law enforcement agencies, an outreach plan and demonstrated need by sharing violation numbers from the last two years.
In addition to enforcement, the project funds education and awareness efforts to encourage drivers to obey the law and stop for buses with flashing lights and stop arms extended. The cameras provided through the project will help schools and law enforcement find the violators and hold them accountable.
“Drivers need to pay attention and not let impatience get the best of them near a school bus picking up or dropping off kids,” said Office of Traffic Safety Director Mike Hanson in a news release. “Driving distracted or thinking you can quickly drive around a bus could kill or seriously injure a child. What a horrific, easily preventable consequence. Drive smart and help keep our youngest Minnesotans safe.”
Earlier grant recipients recognize how valuable the project is to protecting Minnesota students.
“As a school bus driver, so many times I’ve felt that sudden fear and frustration because a motorist just disregards a stop arm and drives right past the bus,” said Michael Lane, shop foreman and bus driver, Cloquet Transit, LCS Coaches, in a news release. “We’re talking about a child’s life. The safety of the students is always on my mind on my route. Thanks to the grant project, we’ve installed new stop arm cameras on our buses. We’re able to much more easily identify violators and work with law enforcement on driver accountability and education.”
Minnesota drivers risking students’ lives
Law enforcement agencies work with schools and transportation companies to cite drivers failing to stop for school buses with flashing lights and stop arms extended. From 2017-2021, law enforcement cited 4,652 drivers for stop arm violations.
The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services conducts an annual illegal passing survey in Minnesota. School bus drivers observed 1,003 stop arm violations in a single day during the 2022 survey.
Follow the law, keep children safe
- State law requires all vehicles to stop for school buses when the bus driver activates the flashing lights and has the stop arm fully extended.
- Drivers who violate the law face a $500 fine.
- Drivers can face criminal charges for passing a school bus on the right, passing when a child is outside the bus, or injuring or killing a child.
- Motorists must stop at least 20 feet from a school bus that is displaying red flashing lights or a stop arm when approaching from the rear and from the opposite direction on undivided roads.
- Motorists should slow down, pay attention and anticipate school children and buses, especially in neighborhoods and school zones.
- The best way to be aware of your surroundings at all times is to put the distractions away.
- When getting off a bus, look to be sure no cars are passing on the shoulder.
- Wait for the bus driver to signal that it’s safe to cross.
- When crossing the street to get on the bus or to go home, make eye contact with motorists before proceeding.
MATT ERICKSON, Editor, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5857.