Wake County making safety upgrades to school buses

Camera installer Daniel Armstrong uses a temporary monitor to test one of the four cameras he installed in a Wake County school bus on Thursday.
Camera installer Daniel Armstrong uses a temporary monitor to test one of the four cameras he installed in a Wake County school bus on Thursday.

Wake County school buses are getting upgrades, both inside and outside, designed to make them safer for students.

All 900 Wake school buses will have a new system that will give more notice to motorists that the vehicles are stopping to pick up and drop off students. Sixteen Wake buses have also gotten exterior cameras to identify motorists who illegally pass stopped buses.

To keep tabs on what’s happening inside, Wake has installed digital cameras in four buses. School officials hope to expand the program to target buses with the worst discipline problems.

These steps occur at a time when Wake is facing problems with student misbehavior that’s causing drivers to quit and with careless motorists who have injured bus riders.

“It’s just another one of the tools in our toolbox to help with the problem,” said Jeff Tsai, director of operating, logistics and systems for Wake’s school transportation department. “But we can’t solve it all on our own.”

Bus safety was put in the spotlight in September. During a one-week period, one Wake student was killed waiting for the bus and another was injured when a motorist passed a stopped bus.

In October, school bus drivers across the state reported more than 3,000 instances in one day of motorists illegally passing.

New warning system

To help combat the problem, the state Department of Public Instruction provided $400,000 for Wake to retrofit its bus fleet with a new system that provides more notice when buses are stopping. Under a new three-step system, red warning lights and the stop arm will deploy as the bus is about to stop. After the bus has come to a complete stop, drivers will open doors and deploy the signal for students to board the bus.

Derek Graham, section chief of DPI’s transportation services, said the new lighting system is standard for newer buses but is not used in most of the state’s 13,000 buses. Wake began retrofitting its older buses this month and will finish in June.

DPI is also providing $45,000 to increase the number of Wake school buses equipped with cameras on stop arms. Tsai said two motorists in Cary have court dates next week after being caught on camera passing buses that had deployed their stop arms.

Cameras inside buses

Wake also is testing the use of on-board cameras to record what students are doing.

Three to four cameras inside each bus can keep the whole vehicle under surveillance. The cameras will be continuously recording. Drivers can hit a button to mark portions of the video for review in cases such as a fight in progress. Those marked sections are automatically downloaded to the district via Wi-Fi.

“It’s pretty fantastic technology,” David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer, told the school board last week. “It’s digital. You’re not talking about recording on cassette tapes or VHS.”

Wake will test the use of on-board cameras on four buses through April. Administrators then plan to request vendor proposals in May to place cameras in 80 buses – five each in Wake’s 16 transportation districts. It will cost $3,000 to $5,000 to equip each bus.

In contrast, the Durham school system rushed to make sure all 300 buses had cameras after allegations emerged in September that two students had been sexually assaulted in a bus by other students.

Driver retention

Wake school officials say there’s a great need for the on-board cameras. Student discipline and low pay are the two reasons bus drivers cite for quitting.

The cameras may be an effective deterrent.

Neter said there was an amazing impact when they placed a fake camera this school year in a bus where they had been having consistent discipline issues.

Chrissy Pearson, a Durham schools spokeswoman, said the on-board bus cameras have been a very valuable tool. She said the district typically reviews images from six to eight cameras a day.

“If a student is causing a problem on the bus, we then have photographic evidence to pursue action against that student,” she said. “Hopefully a student will think about that before making a bad choice.”

Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui