Drivers see red over Gwinnett school bus camera tickets

Gwinnett County began using video cameras on school buses, like this one, about a year ago. So many drivers have been cited after cameras caught them passing stopped buses, the frequency of hearings on those cases will soon triple. During the past six months, 1,370 motorists have either admitted liability or have been found liable in Gwinnett court, according to data compiled by the county solicitor. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

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Gwinnett County began using video cameras on school buses, like this one, about a year ago. So many drivers have been cited after cameras caught them passing stopped buses, the frequency of hearings on those cases will soon triple. During the past six months, 1,370 motorists have either admitted liability or have been found liable in Gwinnett court, according to data compiled by the county solicitor. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM


How to pass the buck, or try, on passing the bus

It wasn’t me.

So who was behind the wheel when the vehicle drove past the school bus?

My stepdad. My son. My wife?

Those were some explanations people used in Gwinnett County Recorder’s Court during a recent hearing on charges they passed a school bus with the stop sign out.

Marcus Thomas initially told chief Recorder’s Court Judge Michael Greene it was his wife driving the day the video camera filmed his vehicle.

If the accused says it was someone else, Greene said prosecutors would cite the other driver blamed for the violation, who would face the possible fine. The judge asked Thomas if he really wanted to have his wife cited. Would he, like some did in court, throw a relative under the bus?

“I’ll take liability,” Thomas decided.

Others, like Bennie Jackson III, said he carefully drove behind the school bus but passed it when he said the bus made a quick stop.

“I would never drive past a bus with children on it,” he said.

The judge ruled Jackson had to pay the fine.

A few motorists didn’t see the school bus.

“I stopped, right?” asked LaRose Odem.

She was driving on the other side of the street. There was no concrete median, so the rules say Odem should have stopped.

“I did go through it,” Odem said after watching the video again. “My bad.”

You can take the AJC's quiz on when its OK to pass a stopped school bus at http://bit.ly/1L9dAvc.

BY THE NUMBERS

Pass a stopped school bus in Georgia and you’ll incur a hefty fine if caught. These are the penalties and fines set by state law:

6 — Number of violation points assessed against your Georgia driver's license

$300 — First offense fine for unlawful passing of a school bus

$750 — Second-offense fine

$1000 — Fine for each subsequent offense in a five-year period

Source: Georgia Code § 40-6-163; Georgia Dept. of Driver Services

BY THE NUMBERS

Pass a stopped school bus in Georgia and you’ll incur a hefty fine if caught. These are the penalties and fines set by state law:

6 — Maximum number of points assessed against your Georgia driver’s license for a criminal violation

$300 — First offense fine for unlawful passing of a school bus

$750 — Second-offense fine

$1000 — Fine for each subsequent offense in a five-year period

Source: Georgia Code § 40-6-163; Georgia Dept. of Driver Services

The motorist was driving along Singleton Road in Gwinnett County when the stop sign on the school bus came out. A second or so later, the car drove past the bus.

Since late last year, if there’s a video camera attached to a Gwinnett bus, that’s meant a $300 fine — more if you’ve been caught repeatedly. The maximum fine is $1,000.

The cameras have caught thousands of people and brought the schools hundreds of thousands of dollars from fines, but Gwinnett officials admit that in some cases they might have been too quick to ticket.

Recognizing they may have been too rigid in penalizing some drivers who passed the sign if it had been out only a second or two, Gwinnett officials say they will show more discretion.

“We’re asking for three or more” seconds before issuing a citation, Solicitor General Rosanna Szabo said.

Gwinnett schools and the county government entered into a contract in October with Redflex Traffic Systems, an Australia-based company that put the cameras on the buses. The cameras are a response to concerns that a student could be struck by a motorist passing a stopped school bus.

Cobb County, Clayton County, Decatur, Marietta and most recently Atlanta are among the districts already using school bus cameras.

During the past six months, 1,370 motorists have either admitted liability or have been found liable in Gwinnett court, according to data compiled by the county solicitor. About 150 cases were dismissed between January and June, according to data put together by Redflex.

Between January and June, Gwinnett’s school system collected $573,425 in fines. The school district uses the money it receives to cover costs for officers who review the footage and for transportation-related safety projects.

But the most important statistic about the program, Gwinnett officials say, is that no students have been hit by a vehicle while trying to enter or exit a school bus.

The number of citations has gradually risen in each month, so much so that Gwinnett will increase hearings on those cases by November from once a week to three times a week. During a recent hearing, 275 cases were on the docket. The courtroom was packed with people ready to defend themselves. Most took last-minute plea deals to pay a $200 fine.

About 40 people said they still wanted to argue their cases before the judge. The judge, Michael Greene, entered the courtroom and gave the group some examples of what he said were unacceptable defenses:

“I did not see the bus.”

“The car behind me would have hit me.”

Thirty of those 40 agreed to pay the fine.

Many of those who stayed were confused about the rules when a school bus is stopped, while others complained about being cited for split-second violations. Several angrily left the courtroom after being found liable despite what they thought were reasonable explanations.

“I’m a little upset,” James Williams, a fine arts teacher at Dacula High School, said after being found liable.

Williams said he didn’t have time to stop once the red stop sign came out on the school bus as he drove past it. Williams said he tried to veer to his left, away from the bus, when it stopped. The video showed the stop sign was out a second or so before Williams drove by.

“I was trying to give it a little more room,” he said.

Szabo said one reason for the many split-second citations is drivers don’t slow down when the yellow lights flash on the bus warning it is about to stop.

“Be prepared to stop,” she said.

Gwinnett is approaching its first anniversary of working with Redflex,which has been at the center of a federal bribery investigation in Chicago. Last month, Chicago officials sued the company for more than $300 million on grounds that its contract was predicated on the bribery scheme that has already led to some corruption convictions.

The company also has some financial troubles. Over the past 12 months, Redflex’s stock on the Australian stock market has plunged from slightly more than $1 a share to about 25 cents a share. The company’s U.S. headquarters is in Phoenix.

Gwinnett, which is in a five-year contract with Redflex, can opt out of the deal after each year. For now, Gwinnett school officials say they have no plans to do so.

“We have been reassured that the company took strong action more than two years ago, conducting an internal investigation, announcing new leadership, cooperating with law enforcement and taking steps to improve compliance,” said Gwinnett school district spokeswoman Sloan Roach.