Wheels of bureaucracy go round for school bus cameras

A pilot project in Ottawa that mounted cameras on school buses led to dozens of drivers being ticketed for illegally passing stopped buses, but two years later, a permanent program expected within months still isn't rolling.

Dozens of drivers ticketed in 2014 pilot project, but permanent program still not rolling

Two years after a successful pilot project in Ottawa, school buses are still not equipped with cameras to catch drivers who pass illegally. (NSSBA)

What looked to be a speedy solution to the problem of school bus "blow-bys" has been slowed to a crawl by red tape.

From May 2014 to the end of October 2015, Safer Roads Ottawa put a camera on one east-end school bus route, to catch drivers illegally passing the bus when it was stopped with lights flashing. The stopping rule applies to drivers coming up behind a school bus, and unless there's a median, to drivers approaching from the other direction as well. The current fine for a first offence is $490.

Police laid 75 charges during the pilot, and found video evidence of another 150 violations which police weren't able to pursue within the constraints of the program resources, according to Safer Roads Ottawa coordinator Rob Wilkinson.

Backers of the program told CBC News in spring 2015 that they hoped to expand it across the city by fall, but two years later, no cameras are operating.

Bureaucracy puts brakes on roll-out

"I'm a little disappointed with all the bureaucracy that needs to be done for something that is going to make such an impact," said Sgt. Mark Gatien of the Ottawa police traffic unit. "But when you sit down and sort of calm down a little bit, you realize nothing is super easy."

Gatien, who has been involved with the project from the beginning, said he had to arrange for the creation of a new government form, to be filled out when charges are laid with the new video evidence. That form was approved in 2016, he said, after the project team bypassed the usual channels at the ministry by personally asking local MPP and Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi to sign off.

Drivers continue to put children at risk by passing school buses illegally, according to Ottawa police Sgt Mark Gatien. (CBC)

Privacy concerns an obstacle

But that was just the beginning, according to Rob Wilkinson of Safer Roads Ottawa. Settling on the right camera system involved a long procurement process after the pilot, which then gave way to discussions about privacy issues. 

Wilkinson said he's had to enlist experts to develop a report for Ontario's privacy commissioner, to explain how personal information such as license plate details would be protected as the video footage makes its way from the bus to the courts.

The extent of the privacy requirements came as a surprise to city councillor Stephen Blais, whose east-end ward hosted the pilot project, but there's no escaping it, he said.

"The last thing we want to do is tout a program and have it thrown out because of technical reasons, or face some kind of class action lawsuit for violations of privacy."

Rob Wilkinson, coordinator of Safer Roads Ottawa, has been working to address privacy issues and other obstacles to getting cameras on school buses to catch drivers passing illegally. (Susan Burgess)

Calls for cameras across Ontario

Ottawa is not the only community with concerns about drivers around school buses.

In late September, a father in Perth, Ont., posted video of a driver speeding past his children's school bus. The video was shared widely on social media, and Ontario Provincial Police later charged a 68-year-old woman. 

A week earlier, a Windsor-area mother had called for cameras after witnessing a car barrel past her daughter's school bus on the road's gravel shoulder.

Such concerns have prompted Rick Nicholls, the Conservative MPP for Chatham-Kent-Essex, to put forward a private member's bill to eliminate yet another obstacle to school bus camera programs, which is the need for a witness — frequently the bus driver —  to support the video evidence if a ticketed driver contests the charge.

That bill passed second reading in February, and Nicholls said he had hoped it could become law before the legislature's summer recess. It's now in limbo until the government decides to call it up for consideration by a Queen's Park committee.

In late September, in response to questions from Nicholls, Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca said the government would consult on the issue.

Chatham-Kent MPP Rick Nicholls wants to make it easier for video from school bus cameras to be used in court, so cameras will be installed to catch drivers who pass illegally. (Rick Nicholls)

Possibly still miles to go for Ottawa program

Ottawa's program will proceed with or without that change to the law, according to Gatien, adding that no drivers contested charges laid during the Ottawa pilot. But it could be a hardship for school bus drivers if they're asked to forgo work and income to appear in court.

Over at Safer Roads Ottawa, Wilkinson is buoyed by the thought this city's pioneering slog through red tape will clear the way for other municipalities to get school bus cameras quickly in the future. 

But as for when the cameras — ultimately six of them in total — will be deployed on Ottawa school buses, Wilkinson said, "I stopped answering that question really directly a few months ago. I would love them on my kids' buses, and protecting them," he said. "We're going to get there."

Meantime, Gatien said, drivers continue to flout the rules dangerously. One spot in Orleans near a roundabout on St. Joseph Boulevard is of particular concern to him.

"We can get somebody there every day," said Gatien. "They're just not getting the concept."