Now that the new school year has begun, here’s a mind-blowing statistic for New York State parents to worry about: 50,000 drivers a day in New York illegally pass stopped school buses. And by “stopped” I mean with lights flashing and stop sign extended. I have actually witnessed this happen myself. Do I sound like an old fogy if I say that drivers used to respect stopped school buses?
Maybe, but I’m not the only old fogy out there. Just talk to any veteran school bus driver. They’ll tell you that “back in the day” people respected stopped school buses as almost sacred. One of them, A North Syracuse Central School bus driver, was interviewed last year in the Syracuse Post Standard. She complained that she was seeing not just a few, but many motorists, on a daily basis, illegally passing her bus with its lights on. She eventually took matters into her own hands; she no longer allows children to cross until she has personally checked to see if traffic is approaching. She no longer trusts motorists to stop for her bus’ flashing lights and extended stop sign! Now isn’t that sad?
Check out this video that went viral a few years ago. It shows a car in New York passing a stopped school bus and narrowly missing a child:
Scary, right? But there’s hope! Since September 5, 2019 (two weeks ago), a new New York law permits local governments, with a school district’s permission, to install cameras that automatically ticket owners of vehicles that illegally pass school buses. If you pass a school bus with its stop sign extended outward, the camera – installed in the stop sign arm – automatically snaps a picture of your vehicle, including its license plate. The owner then gets a violation notice in the mail. Fines for violators range from $250 for a first offense to $300 for following offenses committed within 18 months.
I am hoping that every single school bus in the Syracuse and Rochester areas (and all over New York) will have such cameras installed within a year. That should give would-be-stopped-school-bus-passers pause.
Unfortunately, getting caught on camera is not as bad for the offender as getting caught red-handed by a police officer. If a cop catches you, it’s a 5-point violation, plus the fine. You can lose your license in New York if you get 11 points on your license within an 18 month period of time. But if you are caught only on camera, no points can be issued. That’s because the law can’t be sure you were the one driving your car. They only know you own the car. (Fast forward 30 years — will facial recognition technology be able to capture the driver’s ID by camera)? Also, if an actual police officer catches you, the fine is steeper: up to $400 and five points for a first offense and $1,000 for a third offense — and can result in having your license temporarily revoked for repeated offenses.
What about loopholes? Can a car owner get off the hook by saying, “hey, I wasn’t driving my car that day, a friend of a friend was, so can’t we just get rid of this fine?” Nope. Even if you weren’t driving your car, the law says you, as owner, are still responsible for the fine. So be careful who you lend your car to!
Think you can get away with passing a school bus in a rented car? Think again; if the registered owner is ticketed, he has 37 days to provide a lease or rental agreement to authorities, in which case the lesee (that’s you) is responsible for the fine.
On the other hand, you can fight the fine by submitting proof that your car was stolen. That’s about the only way around the fine.
At Michaels & Smolak, we don’t think a fine is enough. We can’t, and don’t, issue tickets to drivers who pass stopped school buses and injure children. We sue them! In fact, we sue them not only for “compensatory damages” (to compensate the child for pain and suffering, medical expenses, etc.) but also for punitive damages. Punitive damages are not designed to “compensate” the victim, but rather to PUNISH the wrongdoer. They are available only when you can prove the wrongdoer deliberately or recklessly endangered the victim. In our opinion, passing a stopped school bus with lights flashing and the stop sign extended is almost ALWAYS reckless or deliberate.
One more thing: If you pass a stopped school bus and we sue you, don’t expect your insurance to cover you completely. No. Your insurance will cover you only for compensatory damages we win in court, not for punitive damages. Your on your own for those. But if your child is injured by a vehicle illegally passing a school bus, you are NOT on your own. Call us. We can help.