Growing number of drivers caught blowing by stop signs on school buses

A student is struck by a moped in this March 2016 video supplied by Redflex. The student was unhurt.
A student is struck by a moped in this March 2016 video supplied by Redflex. The student was unhurt.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence Police Department issued nearly 800 citations for drivers who went through the extended, flashing stop arm on schools buses during the 2015-16 school year, a Target 12 investigation has discovered.

The drivers were nabbed using video technology from Redflex, an Australian company which has cameras on 19 of 144 school buses in Providence.

The cameras – one facing forward and one back – begin recording when a bus’s lights start flashing yellow. The video is then transmitted wirelessly to Redflex, where it is reviewed for possible violations. If a car is spotted blowing by the stop sign, the video is sent to the Providence Police Department, which then decides whether or not to issue a $500 violation.

Under state law, the company receives 75 percent of all revenue from citations that result in a conviction. Providence receives 12.5 percent and the state gets the other 12.5 percent.

Michael Cavaiola, a spokesperson for Redflex, said Rhode Island is the only state they deal with that legislates the revenue split between government and the company.

“Other states vary in percentages between state and municipality but don’t speak to what the vendor gets,” he said.

In Virginia and Georgia, for example, 100 percent of the fine goes back to the municipality, which then has a set contract with Redflex for the amount the company is paid, he said.

Redflex acquired SmartBus Live, the company that began installing cameras on Rhode Island school buses in 2008, four years ago.

A Target 12 review of campaign finance reports found SmartBus employees made $6,350 in campaign contributions – primarily to Rhode Island lawmakers – in 2011, the year legislation was rewritten to determine the company’s share of the revenue.

Former House Speaker Gordon Fox received $1,700 between 2010 and 2012, and former House Finance Chairman Steven Costantino received $3,150. Both were Providence Democrats.

A major change made in the 2011 legislation was removing language that stated “compensation to the private entity that provides such a system and related support service shall not be based on the revenue generated by the system,” and locking in language that gives the company the 75 percent share of each ticket.

Andrew Annaldo has been a lobbyist for Redflex since 2011, according to the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office. Annaldo told Target 12 he can’t recall how the revenue share was determined but knows the state got a cut because the tickets have to be adjudicated by the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal.

“The revenue that is produced isn’t a big issue,” Annaldo said. “The big issue is when we looked at municipalities; they were not giving tickets out.”

Providence has received $129,109 in revenue from the school bus cameras since the 2012-13 school year, according to the city. Based on the revenue percentages set by the state, the figure suggests Redflex received about $775,000 over the same time frame.

Currently five school districts have at least one bus equipped with the Redflex camera technology: Providence, Warwick, East Providence, Johnston and North Providence. Cities and towns determine how much the citation will be, ranging between $250 and $500.

Laura Hart, a spokesperson for the Providence Public Schools, said while the company does get the majority of the revenue from the citations, the city would be issuing far fewer tickets without the technology.

“We wouldn’t have this because we don’t have the capacity, we don’t have the equipment, we don’t have the people,” Hart said. “The school department is getting some revenue, but the number one reason isn’t revenue – the number one reason is safety for our kids.”

Laura Cooper has been driving a school bus for 25 years in Providence and said the problem of cars ignoring or not seeing the stop arm from the side of the school bus has gotten “much worse” recently. She thinks mobile devices distracting drivers is likely the reason the problem is growing.

“They don’t pay attention,” Cooper said. “You’re afraid the kid is going to get hit or the monitor is going to get hit and it’s just a scary moment.”

Target 12 obtained video from March 2016 of a schoolgirl getting struck by a moped that drove past her bus’s extended flashing red stop sign. After getting hit, the girl stands up and appears unhurt, while the driver speeds off. Redflex said no citation was issued because the moped did not have a license plate, so they were unable to track the violator.

Another video obtained by Target 12, from November 2015, showed five cars driving by the flashing red sign of a Providence school bus before a bus monitor stepping into the street stopped the traffic.

Providence issued 805 citations in the 2013-14 school year, 1,108 the following year and 797 in 2015-16. In terms of revenue that means the city received a high of $42,017 in the 2014-15 school year. It dropped to $25,817 last year.

Hart said the number of buses in the Providence fleet that are equipped with the cameras has grown in recent years.

“Those buses have been chosen because they’re in areas where we have a higher incidence of people running through the red flashing lights and the bar that goes out,” Hart said. “This is actually a decision that’s made between the bus company and Redflex [and] it has to do with the level of incidents that happen in a particular area.”

Cooper said before the technology, it was up to bus drivers to try and nab violators.

“We used to have these little cards and we sent them into work and they’d send them to the police station and we didn’t know if they got them or not,” Cooper said. “I’m very happy now because it’s making some people more aware and when [they] get that ticket for that price it gives them a second thought.”

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook