Last week, a bus driver in St. John’s contacted the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary about vehicles illegally passing the bus.
“When we put a police unit down there for three or four days at the time the incidents were supposed to take place, nothing was observed,” said Insp. Sean Ennis, the officer in charge of operational support for the RNC.
“The members ended up giving out tickets for speeding, ended up giving out tickets for people (driving) with cellphones, but nobody passed the bus while the police unit was visible.”
According to Ennis and Paul Matheson, manager of student transportation for the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD) in central Newfoundland, holding drivers responsible for illegally passing school buses is challenging, even when such incidents are observed.
A pilot project equipping those buses with cameras may help the situation.
Last year, the RNC issued tickets for approximately 25,000 traffic violations in all jurisdictions it covers — the Northeast Avalon, Corner Brook and Labrador West. There were less than 50 tickets issued for incidents in which a driver illegally passed a school bus.
“Another difficulty that you run into is our Highway Traffic Act requires that in order for us to issue a ticket, we not only have to identify the plate number of the vehicle, but we also have to identify the driver,” said Ennis. “It makes it difficult when a citizen wants to call in to make a complaint and say, ‘I observed a vehicle pass the bus.’ They may have gotten the plate number, but may not have seen the person who actually was behind the wheel, so for court purposes it makes our job just a little bit more difficult.”
Matheson, who is responsible for 182 provincially owned-and-operated buses transporting K-12 students in the central region, is aware of an ongoing problem with vehicles passing buses as they pick up or drop off students, particularly in larger communities such as Grand Falls-Windsor and Gander.
“The potential is there for a serious problem,” said Matheson, who spent 26 years in the RCMP.
Bus drivers are required to keep their eyes focused on students as they get on or off a bus.
“They almost see a blur, perhaps, out of the left side, and to get a licence plate (number) is very difficult,” he said.
Matheson said there have been cases in which his drivers have presented information to the RCMP resulting in tickets being issued.
There are a few buses in the central region equipped with cameras to catch motorists as part of a pilot project. The NLESD is currently exploring the use of high-definition video to capture clearer images to better assist police work.
Ennis considers the pilot project to be “a very progressive step” for both policing and protecting children. The RNC has been taking steps to discourage distracted driving at an early age by going into high schools to give presentations. Ennis said distracted driving is known to be a contributing factor to such incidents.
He also notes the Highway Traffic Act is a regularly amended document, making specific reference to last year’s change restricting slow-moving vehicles from using highways with a posted speed limit exceeding 80 km/h.
“Pretty much every year there are new amendments to the Highway Traffic Act to allow us a little bit more latitude to effectively enforce the laws,” he said. “There’s constant dialogue when it comes to the policing community and what changes we would like to see and where we would like to see the Highway Traffic Act go.”
While drivers need to be cognizant of school buses, the same logic applies to bus drivers and other vehicles, according to Ennis.
“If you’re out on a highway with 40 kilometres or 50 kilometres an hour speed limit, it takes a vehicle 25.7 metres to stop. So if the bus driver stops quickly and puts out his signs, a car may actually pass the bus because it’s not physically able to (stop in time).”
He also suggests drivers heading to work in the morning should be well aware of how long it takes to get there. Thus, illegally passing a school bus should never be thought of as a shortcut.