- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Some North Carolina lawmakers want to give school districts authority to install cameras on school buses and issue $500 fines for those who pass the buses unlawfully.

The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday recommended the measure, which advocates hope will prevent student injuries and punish violators.

First-term Sen. Tom McInnis, a bill sponsor, said there have been five student fatalities involving school buses over the past four years. During just one day, he said, school bus drivers observed more than 3,000 vehicles passing buses. He said without action, it would only be a matter of time before another child dies.

“We’ve got to draw a line in the sand,” McInnis, R-Richmond, said before the panel recommended the measure, which next heads to a judiciary committee.

The bill would allow counties to issue ordinances to enforce a state law that already prohibits motorists from passing buses, which have stop arms that swing open from the side and flash when they are picking up or unloading students. The measure also would allow districts to enter into vendor agreements to install the cameras that take photos or video. The buses would be required to have signs warning drivers that they are equipped with cameras.

As with drivers who are captured by red-light cameras still used in a handful of municipalities, drivers caught on the buses’ cameras would receive a civil penalty that they could appeal. But they would not be cited for a criminal or traffic violation that could otherwise place points on their insurance or driver’s license.

Districts could keep penalty proceeds after paying the firm to operate the system and for camera equipment.

Photographic evidence could still be used by police in a criminal prosecution, but charging people isn’t the key reason for the legislation, McInnis said.

“The purpose is to bring light to this problem,” he said. “We need to have a deterrent to make it stop.”

State law already mandates a minimum $500 fine for illegal passing, a misdemeanor. Fines can be higher or the crime can become a felony when a child is struck or killed.

Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, didn’t vote against the bill, but said she was concerned about the cost to motorists, which could include a $100 late fee. Appeals also wouldn’t be handled by a judge, who could take into account the circumstances of the case, she said.

Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, asked last fall that the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force recommend the legislature give authority to school districts to run stop-arm camera programs for buses.

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