Do you remember when the Legislature spent $5 million to put video cameras in every school bus in the state?
That was supposed to reduce the number of reckless drivers endangering students by passing stopped buses despite their flashing red lights.
People called them “fly-bys.” But fly-bys haven’t stopped with the addition of cameras. Merle Smith, bus transportation director for Laramie County School District No. 1, told the Senate Education Committee on Friday that his district bus drivers report an estimated 3,000 fly-bys per year.
That high number was Shock A. The committee then heard Shock B: most, if not all, of these violations were not prosecuted.
How can that be? Law enforcement policy varies from district to district Smith explained. Some sheriff and police forces around the state spend time searching for offenders and others apparently don’t make much of an effort. In Laramie County, he said, prosecutors refuse to press cases unless the driver — not just the vehicle — can be positively identified either by the bus driver or on video.
The bus driver, Smith noted, is too busy to identify a driver roaring past the bus. The driver must watch kids get on and off the bus, operate the vehicle in a safe manner and manage the other students on the bus.
“The video cameras give us a clear image of a car’s make, model, color and the license plate,” Smith said. “But the driver is in silhouette and can’t be positively identified.”
In other cities, like Rock Springs, school districts are seeing motorists successfully prosecuted. The fine statewide is $420, which, theory holds, should serve as a deterrent to keep that driver and others from breaking the law.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) said it doesn’t make sense that the cameras are “a success in one district and an abject failure in another.” He said technology may explain some of the differences in prosecution, but the prime reason seems to be law enforcement’s different standards for following up on a case. In Laramie County No. 1, the bar is set higher than others.
Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette), a member of the committee, is sponsoring Senate File 59 in an effort to assure consistent handling of these violations.
Many school districts and transportation groups support SF-59. Others are wary of the proposal because it presumes that the owner of a vehicle involved in a fly-by is also the driver. The suspect can offer evidence to rebut the charge — maybe even try to pin it on one of his kids —but if the bill becomes law as written, it will essentially say that a person accused of this crime is guilty until he or she proves their innocence.
Which, of course, stands one of the main principles of our criminal justice system on its head.
The idea left Rothfuss with a quandary he had to work through in public. “I’ll likely vote no on a bill that protects children, and that makes me uncomfortable,” he said. “But I’m not comfortable at all with what this does to due process.”
Regular readers will know that I abhor legislative talk that goes nowhere. But in this instance I applaud the committee for stepping back, taking a deep breath and hitting the pause button. Hopefully a time-out will give them the time they need to improve a much needed but badly flawed bill.
Had they charged ahead, as it appeared they would, and requested a ‘study’ of the problem, school kid safety would have turned into yet another interim topic to be talked to death without finding a better solution. Occasionally these studies can be useful, but more often than not they’re just a lame excuse to punt the problem into the next session.
It takes more guts to sponsor a bill and, even if it has problems, move the proposal forward and work them out with the rest of the chamber if possible.
But if it has major problems, like SF-59 does, it doesn’t hurt to take a time out and reach a consensus about what to do next before making a big mistake that could be difficult to undo.
The catalyst for Wyoming to pass the first law in the nation to mandate the installation of cameras in school buses was the tragic death of 11-year-old Makayla Marie Strahle of Crowheart. She was killed in 2011 while crossing a Fremont County highway by a driver who ignored the flashing lights and the “stop-arm” that was clearly visible on the driver’s side of her bus. The offending motorist was convicted of three misdemeanors, including homicide by vehicle.
In 2013 some of Strahles’s classmates visited the Legislature to lobby for a bill that would honor her and help prevent other students from dying. A year later lawmakers approved the school bus cameras.
On Friday the committee members were divided over how to approach the dilemma of far too many fly-bys and a proposed solution that takes away due process.
Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) said she strongly favors an interim study. “If we go to the [Senate] floor with something that’s not ready, they’ll chew it up,” she said. She noted it would then be difficult to convince the Legislative Management Council to authorize an interim study.
Even though it’s his bill, Wassenburger said he would be “very happy” if the result this year is an interim study.
But Chairman Hank Coe (R-Cody) made it clear he wants to see the bill move forward.
“This is such an important issue, I think we need to debate it on the floor,” he said. “We need to have the discussion, so why not have it now? If we wind up asking for an interim study, this will jump-start the process.”
Sen. Stephan Pappas (R-Cheyenne) agreed with Coe, and so do I. Everyone who testified convinced me this is a critical safety issue that shouldn’t be delayed. The due process issue is disturbing and I don’t see any obvious solutions, but if 90 legislators put their minds to it they can find a way to create a consistent enforcement method that doesn’t automatically put the blame on vehicle owners.
Fortunately Coe decided that instead of killing the bill or letting it sit around for another year, he will lay SF-59 back until Wednesday, when the panel will have another go at it.
If you have a suggestion and the time, Coe’s non-action gives the public another opportunity to weigh in by email, phone or in person at the committee’s next meeting. For the sake of our children’s safety, tell legislators you want them to tackle this issue now.