School bus cameras back in Ontario's sights, but Wynne won't commit

Ontario is debating the idea of using cameras on school buses to ticket drivers that illegally blow past the vehicles as children get on and off, but the government isn't ready to commit.

Other jurisdictions, including in Texas and Virginia, already have similar technology in place

The camera technology would mean that if you have blow past a stopped school bus, with its flashers on, and you might received a hefty bill in the mail. (NSSBA)

Ontario legislators are debating the idea of using cameras on school buses to ticket drivers that illegally blow past the vehicles as children get on and off, but the government isn't ready to commit to the measure without further study.

Local politicians and school bus companies have called on the provincial government to pass legislation that will enable video from cameras mounted on the outside of school buses to be admitted as evidence in court without a witness to back up the footage, as is currently the requirement.

Such a change in law could mean that the owners of vehicles that illegally pass school buses get tickets in the mail after being caught on camera.

But Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca said while the Liberal government is supportive of the idea, it isn't ready to pass legislation on it without further consideration.

The government has some concerns about the details of the technology involved and the legislative change it would require, he said.

"We're going to make sure we get it right," Del Duca said. "Moving forward with technology that doesn't actually provide you with the outcome you're looking for doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

Tech already in action elsewhere

Several jurisdictions in the U.S., including in Texas and Virginia, already use school bus cameras to ticket drivers.

A pilot project also tested the technology this spring in BrantfordMississauga, Sudbury and Kitchener-Waterloo. It was conducted by a company that makes the cameras, along with municipalities, school boards and police forces in the communities.

The project found drivers illegally passed school buses that stopped to let children on or off — with their lights flashing and stop-arm out — in all those communities.

In rural Brantford, there was one blow-by per bus every three days, but in Mississauga, the problem was the worst — occurring an average of two-and-a-half times per bus per day.

The exterior camera technology is already in place in jurisdictions in both the United States and Canada. (CBC)

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said the province needs to deal with the issue.

"We must take action to reduce these incidences and increase safety for our children," she said in a statement. "We cannot wait for serious injury or a fatality before we act."

Widespread problem

In the Waterloo area, where the pilot project found 500 to 700 illegal blow-bys of local school buses each week, bus drivers have serious concerns about the issue, said Keith Prudham, the safety and information supervisor for the Student Transportation Services of Waterloo Region.

Prudham said police can't follow every bus to fine people, so camera-based tickets would help.

"Once people start to get hit with violations and fines the word gets out that this is a costly move on your part, not to mention how unsafe it is for children on the road," he said.

Currently, even with video of drivers illegally passing school buses, fines often aren't laid because the footage can't be considered evidence in court without a witness.

'I've witnessed some really close calls'

One retired bus driver said a witness can be difficult to come by because it's hard for a bus driver to take down the license plate of a vehicle that whizzes past a school bus while still watching students going and coming from the vehicle.

"I can honestly say I've witnessed some really close calls by blow-bys," said Leo Heuvelmans, who came to the Ontario Legislature this week to speak about the issue.

To tackle the problem, the Progressive Conservatives proposed a private member's bill modelled after legislation for red-light cameras, which would allow tickets to be issued through the mail to owners of vehicles that fail to stop for a school bus.

The party sought to add its bill into the Liberal government's Safer School Zones Act as an amendment, which would have given it greater certainty of becoming law.

The government act, which is making its way through the legislature, will allow municipalities to use automated speed enforcement systems — better known as photo radar — in school zones and community safety zones, allowing speeding vehicles to be ticketed by mail, without a police officer present. It is expected to pass into law soon.

Political football

The Liberals, however, blocked the PC attempt to add the school bus cameras bill as an amendment, and accused the party of trying to delay the government's school safety legislation and putting people's lives at risk in the process.

In response, PC Transportation Critic Michael Harris said it was Liberals who were playing games with children's lives.

Del Duca said ministry staffers will be able to pursue the bus camera issue once the Safer School Zones Act is passed.

Harris said he plans to try one more time to convince the government to address the issue through its school safety legislation at a committee meeting on Monday.

The current fine for passing a stopped school bus is $490, plus six demerit points.