Smile for the camera: School bus cameras returning to Va.

WASHINGTON — Consider this a warning.

Come July 1 some school buses in Virginia will once again be using high-resolution cameras and video to capture vehicles, including the license plates, that pass school buses which are stopped with red lights flashing and have their stop-arm deployed.

Frank Bellavia, a spokesman for Arlington County Public Schools, said the school bus stop-arm camera program was suspended shortly after it began last year in Virginia. But it is returning now that state lawmakers during the last General Assembly session tweaked language allowing tickets to be sent in the mail to violators.

For school buses that are outfitted with the cameras, the bus drivers do not have to do anything since the cameras operate automatically. The cameras are activated when a vehicle passes a school bus that is stopped with its red lights flashing and stop-arm extended.

The fine for stop-arm violations is $250 in Virginia.

In Arlington County last year, during 19 days of school, the bus cameras captured 216 violators.

Nationally, over the past 40 years more than 400 children have been killed by motorists driving past a stopped school bus, according to the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at North Carolina State University.

Bellavia said when the camera program resumes next month more than 20 of the country’s 165 school bus fleet will have the cameras. But he said what is interesting about the program is that violators end up paying to expand the program. He says 60 percent of the $250 fines are reinvested into the safety program. In essence, violators will be paying for more cameras.

He said before a ticket is mailed out that the images and the video of the motorists are reviewed by Arlington County police. If police deem there has been a violation, then a $250 ticket will be sent. The school bus stop-arm camera program operates like the red-light camera program or speed camera programs, a civil fine or penalty is levied but the driver is not hit with point deductions.

Bellavia said it is the law in Virginia that if you are a driver and are approaching a school bus which is stopped, has its stop-arm extended and its red flashing lights, you cannot pass the bus. But, he said, if there is a median, and you are on the other side of the median from the bus, you are allowed to pass the stopped school bus.

Fairfax County police’s Michael D. Mittiga said the code section does not mention the stop arm or stop sign. “Many drivers are misled reading that the red lights and stop arm must be extended for a violation. Simply passing after the red lights have started to flash is a violation,” Mittiga said in an email.

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