by KIM HILSENBECK
Drivers who illegally pass San Marcos school buses may find something soon thereafter in their mailbox: A $300 citation.
Starting Feb. 3, violators are subject to a civil penalty for passing a stopped school bus while it is picking up or dropping off students. A new ordinance approved by San Marcos City Council on Jan. 7 authorizes the San Marcos Police Department to mail a ticket to the registered owner of a vehicle caught on cameras passing a bus when its red flashing lights are activated.
A fall pilot program that equipped 15 buses with external cameras documented 2,360 drivers who illegally passed school buses in the course of a single academic semester. All 82 buses in the district’s fleet will now be fitted with the technology.
The school district contracted with a private firm, Dallas-based Busguard LLC, to install and monitor cameras for the pilot study. With the new law in place, Busguard will receive 75 percent of each $300 fine issued. The city and the school district will split the remaining 25 percent. Officials say the school district’s and city’s share of revenue from the program will be used to fund safety programs, said Carter Hutson, the school district’s transportation director.
The cameras and supporting technology will be installed at no cost to the district and instead be funded through Busguard’s cut of future fines. Hutson said Busguard reviews the video from an off-site location in the Dallas area. If violations are confirmed, the company notifies the police department, when then levies the civil penalty.
State law requires that all drivers must stop when a school bus is stopped and operating a visual signal, such as flashing red lights or extended stop sign. Drivers in all lanes should not proceed until the school bus resumes motion, the driver signals to proceed, or the stop siglans are no longer activated.
The only exception, Hutson said, is that oncoming drivers do not need to stop if the roadway is separated by a physical barrier such as a grass median. On roadways like Aquarena Springs, divided only by a left-turn lane, drivers in all lanes in both directions must stop.
Hutson attributed the problem to several factors including “the majority of people are ignorant of the law.” He added that many want to blame the college students.
“Certainly they are a part of it, no doubt. But they’re not the only ones,” he said.
Last year, the six San Marcos CISD school buses were involved in accidents, Huston said. So far in 2014, there have been another six, some of them serious.
In January, a special education bus was stopped on the railroad tracks on Texas 21 with its red lights and stop signal out. Bus operators must stop, open the door and look both ways before proceeding over tracks.
“A large gravel truck came barreling down Hwy. 21,” Hutson said. “[The driver] managed to veer the cab away from hitting bus but the trailer hit the back of the bus.”
A wheelchair bound student normally on that bus was absent that day. Had he been in his regular seat in the bus, “it’s likely he would have been seriously injured or killed,” Hutson said.
KIM HILSENBECK is editor of the Hays Free Press where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Hays Free Press and the San Marcos Mercury.
COVER: The wreckage of a San Marcos CISD school bus is evidence of the need for a new city of San Marcos ordinance that allows the police department to levy civil penalties against drivers who pass a bus while it is loading or unloading students. PHOTO by RANDY HOLT VIA THE HAYS FREE PRESS