Pre-K 4 SA students line up outside of their bus at the San Antonio Food Bank. Photo by Scott Ball.
Pre-K 4 SA students line up outside of their bus. San Antonio voters will get to decide in May whether Pre-K 4 SA deserves to maintain its eighth-of-a-cent sales tax funding for eight more years. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Thursday that creates a civil penalty for drivers who pass school busses that stop to load and unload passengers.

When a school bus stops, activates its flashing lights and deploys its side “stop arm” so children can get on or off the bus, motorists traveling in either direction must stop. The new ordinance will make enforcing that easier by allowing San Antonio school districts to install cameras on the outside of their school buses to identify violators, who could be subject to a $300 fine. After receiving a citation, those caught on camera have 30 days to appeal.

The ordinance requires drivers that receive a citation to present written proof of their vehicle ownership, and school district officials must review video footage to determine if there was indeed a violation. Financial impact should not be considered by school districts when deciding whether to fine a motorist, the ordinance states.

Participating school districts will use the money toward other pedestrian safety measures, said Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh.

Over the last several years, a number of area school districts have expressed a desire to improve safety for the many students who use a school bus or walk to school. Many expressed support for increasing penalties for traffic law violations that prohibit motorists from passing stopped school buses. As a response, four school districts – North East Independent School District (NEISD), South San ISD, East Central ISD and Judson ISD – implemented bus camera pilot programs to collect data and portray the gravity of the problem in their respective districts. 

During the 2012-2013 school year, seven camera-equipped school buses in NEISD captured 598 violations. City officials said one-third of deaths in school bus-related collisions occur in the immediate 10-foot area surrounding the bus because motorists disregard the flashing lights and stop arm.

Enforcement is a challenge because of the high number of school buses bound for different locations during morning and afternoon commutes, but Police Chief William McManus said the San Antonio Police Department has issued 418 citations for such violations in the last three years.

Pre-K 4 SA students hop on board the school bus as the driver extends his hand. Photo by Scott Ball.
Pre-K 4 SA students hop on board the school bus as the driver extends his hand. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Awareness of this issue was heightened after Mailani Godin, 12, was hit by a motorist and killed this past April while walking to Eisenhower Middle School with friends. In January 2014, Tatyana Babineaux, 9, was fatally hit by a motorist as she headed to nearby Larkspur Elementary School.

In both cases, neighbors expressed concern about the unsafe conditions for children either walking to and from schools or simply boarding or leaving a school bus in their neighborhood. Two months ago, City Councilmen Alan Warrick II (D2) and Ray Lopez (D6) asked City staff to research best practices in other Texas cities and to draft a civil penalty ordinance.

Nolan Anderson, executive director for the NEISD’s transportation department, told City Council that student safety is paramount to his district. NEISD school buses transport 26,000 students each school day. The district has had cameras installed on the inside of school buses for five years. Aside from the four districts who participated in the pilot program, the City will talk to other school districts in hopes of getting them on board.

“This will definitely enhance the safety of students getting on and off our busses,” Anderson said.

Wallace McCampbell, chief of NEISD police, said Babineaux and Godin’s deaths have undoubtedly spurred the school district to work with the City to find ways to improve child pedestrian safety.

“Safety is the No. 1 priority (for) our school kids,” he said. “This just gives us another tool.”

Since 2012, at least 16 Texas cities have passed civil penalty ordinances for bus stop-arm violations including Dallas, Austin, and San Marcos. Since implementation, Dallas saw a 25% drop in the number of reported violations. San Antonio’s ordinance is patterned after the Austin Independent School District and its bus camera program. More than 6,200 citations were issued between this past February and the end of the 2015-2016 school year in that district.

“We can’t stop here. It has to be awareness on the part of the driver,” Lopez said. “Awareness is a very important thing, and outreach is going to be incredibly important.”

In addition to passing this ordinance, the Council approved Councilman Joe Krier’s (D9) request to use $42,000 in District 9 discretionary funds to help boost the school zone safety program in his district. The money will be used to purchase safety vests, patrol belts, flashers, safety cones and handheld stop signs – all meant to help reduce the number of pedestrian accidents in NEISD school zones in District 9.

Krier said he still sometimes sees motorists pass stagnant school buses in his neighborhood, and emphasized the need to improve overall child pedestrian safety in his area, especially after the deaths of Babineaux and Godin.

“I hope more school districts will take advantage of this (enforcement program),” Krier said. He and other officials said the ordinance is a positive addition to the City’s overall efforts, such as the Vision Zero initiative, to improve safety on public roads.

“It’s an opportunity for us to advance the school safety issue,” said Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8).

Top image: Pre-K 4 SA students line up outside of their bus at the San Antonio Food Bank. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.