SPRINGFIELD — The long arm of the law has extended its reach in the area of school bus safety.
The Effingham County School District and the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office have agreed to work together to achieve the immediate goal of decreasing the risk of harm to students on school buses by increasing community awareness, implementing smart-bus technology available through the Bus Patrol program, and fully enforcing violations to stop-arm laws.
“We feel like it’s a good day in Effingham,” Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie said during a Thursday news conference at his office. “We’ve been working on this project several years now, trying to get a program set up.”
McDuffie, with representatives of the Georgia State Patrol, Guyton Police Department, Rincon Police Department and Springfield Police Department standing behind him, announced the implementation of smart-bus equipment that will record stop-arm violations. The data collected from each violation will be presented to the sheriff’s office for verification.
For the first offense, violators caught by Bus Patrol camera will be issued a $250 school bus monitoring citation as well as a photo and video of the incident. The offender then has the right to pay the citation or request a hearing.
Those who are cited a second time will face higher fines as well as points against their driver’s license.
During a recent test run, Bus Patrol, featuring a side-mounted camera, captured more than 300 stop-arm violations in Effingham County in just two months.
“This will make for a lot better enforcement and save our kids from getting hurt,” McDuffie said. “A few years ago, we had an incident where a young child stepped in front of a car (whose driver ignored the stop arm). ... By the grace of goodness, she didn’t get killed.”
In that case, the child’s grandfather chased the perpetrator down and got his tag number, leading to an arrest.
Stop-arm violations are a major concern for Effingham County Schools Transportation Coordinator Brett Martin. He supervises a system that includes 121 buses that rack up more than one million miles a year while transporting nearly 8,000 students a day.
“In Effingham County, along with Georgia and nationally, we do have an issue with vehicles stopping when students are loading and unloading,” Martin said. “In this school year in October and November 2018, there were 12 students (nationally) in an eight-day span that were struck by vehicles failing to stop for the school bus arm. Six of those students got killed.
“So the hope for this program is to bring awareness to the public and keep the students of Effingham County safer.”
Martin said one of the leading reasons for stop-arm violations is a lack of understanding of the law.
“On a multilane highway, if it has a divided median such as a grass barrier or a concrete barrier, only the individuals on the same side of the road as the school bus need to stop,” he said. “However, on the multilane highway with just a turning lane and no physical barrier, all sides need to stop. Downtown Rincon (on Columbia Avenue) is a good example of that.
“Traffic in downtown Rincon needs to stop in both directions for school buses loading or unloading students.”
Martin said Ga. Hwy 80 is another problematic area.
The school system currently has only three Bus Patrol cameras. They are easily transferrable, however, making it simple to spread their impact by targeting problem areas.
The system has a goal to 10 Bus Patrol cameras.
Katie Sharkey of Bus Patrol said the program was introduced in Georgia in 2012 thanks to the help of the transportation and school bus industries. It has proven to work well, she said.
“It showed that it decreases violations by over 35 percent in the first year of the program alone,” she said. “It also shows that less than one or two percent get a second ticket. So it actually does prove effective in teaching and curbing bad driver behavior.
“That’s the whole point of the program — to teach the driver and safe a child’s life.”