Police monitor school bus safety with unmarked cars
Editor's note: Reporter Brittany Lyte spent two mornings following school buses with the New Canaan Police Department.
By Brittany Lyte
On mornings when school is in session, New Canaan tikes and teens stand huddled at bus stops and wait to pile onto the big yellow taxi for a ride to school. As the school bus slows to a halt and its double doors push open to let New Canaan Public Schools students aboard, a stop sign extends like an arm from the side of the bus.
All traffic on the road comes to a standstill as motorists brake their vehicles until the flashing red octagon retreats -- or, at least, that is what should happen.
Since NCPS partnered with the New Canaan Police Department last month to bolster enforcement of the law that punishes motorists for passing stopped school buses, officers have caught at least one driver each week.
According to Officer Ron Bentley, one offender is one too many.
"The ones that we're getting are absolutely blatant school bus passes," Bentley said. "Just total disregard for the anyone's safety."
The effort for increased compliance, called Operation Safe School Bus Stop, involves stationing officers on school buses and in unmarked vehicles traveling behind buses.
Another program component is education.
"We need to make clear that the owner of the vehicle is responsible if the operator of the vehicle is not identified or produced," Capt. Leon Krolikowski said. "Right now, that's not clear."
It is illegal to pass a stopped school bus that has its red warning lights activated. When these lights are flashing, motorists must stop their vehicle at least 10 feet from the front of the bus and at least 10 feet from the rear of the bus. Flashing yellow lights on a school bus should be treated as a yellow traffic signal, which warns drivers to prepare to stop.
"If a kid is getting off the bus at school, and say he drops something that rolls under the bus and goes to the other side of the bus, and he runs around -- if you hit the kid, you're not going to be able to live with yourself," Bentley said. "And it's just because you wanted to go home and play tennis or to do whatever it is you're rushing to do.
"You ruin several people's lives if you hit that child. Not only the child, but the family -- everyone pays the price ... I'm not aware of any children getting hurt, but I know there have been several close calls."
On any given day when school is in session, there are up to three officers following NCPS buses along their morning routes in unmarked vehicles. Three mornings per week, Bentley begins his school bus shift at 6:15 a.m. He spends those mornings monitoring motorists as he trails along high school, middle school and elementary school bus routes. If a vehicle passes a standing bus, he is prepared to stop the driver and serve him or her a $460 fine.
According to Bentley, there are three major arteries that run in and out of New Canaan: Route 123, Route 124 and Old Stamford Road. These three roads are hot spots for drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses, he said.
"They're going to the train station, or wherever they're going, and they're in a hurry to go nowhere," he said.
In the last 18 months, NCPD officers have investigated about 25 violations -- about 20 of which have led to infractions, according to Krolikowski.
"I view violations of this sort close to driving while intoxicated -- it's that dangerous," Krolikowski said.
Many of these offenses have occurred on school grounds, he said.
"It's probably parents," he said. "It's probably someone associated with the school."
Bentley agrees. Two weeks ago, a Saxe Middle School psychologist earned a $460 fine for passing a stopped bus on school property, he said.
"The majority of the people that complain [about motorists passing buses] are New Canaan residents; the majority of the people that get caught are New Canaan residents," Bentley said. "You look at them, and you're like, `You're the one who wants us to enforce this, yet you're doing it.'"
NCPS school buses are outfit with three video cameras: one inside the rear of the bus that monitors the students, one that records students as they enter and exit the bus and another about 2 feet behind the flashing stop sign. That third camera is positioned to record images of the motorists, vehicles and license plates that pass the bus when it is stopped.
Unfortunately, Krolikowski said, the video footage is not recognized as evidence of a violation. Before an officer can enforce the law, the statute requires that either an officer see the violation or a bus driver submit a description of the vehicle and the motorist.
It's difficult for bus drivers to give a description of the motorist when his or her focus is on the road and the children, Bentley said.
"All he can see is that yes, a car went through a stop sign," he said.
According to Police Commission Chairman Jim Cole, the commission and department are working to secure stricter enforcement of the current law and enhanced penalties like court appearances, misdemeanor violations or mandatory license suspensions.
"There are a lot of roads coming in from New York to New Canaan filled with people trying to catch the train," Bentley said. "They'll get behind a bus and they'll get very impatient, so they'll pass the bus. Now, if you pass a bus over a double line, it's about a $1,000 ticket because it's passing in a no-passing zone, it's a failure to drive right and it's passing a standing school bus. So it's roughly around $1,000 just because they wanted to be impatient."
The court doesn't show any leniency when it comes to school bus passing, he said.
"If you know that a bus is routinely on this road at this time, 7:30 a.m., be on the road prior to that time so that you don't get stuck behind the bus," Bentley said. "Leave a little earlier while school is in session. It's an obvious fix."