Thursday, November 13, 2008

Winnipeg School Buses Being Fitted with Traffic Cameras to Catch Reckless Drivers

WINNIPEG — Drivers might want to think twice before putting their foot to the floor to illegally pass a stopped school bus.

A Winnipeg school board is braving new ground in a bid to stop reckless drivers by turning their buses into mobile traffic cameras.

The city's Seven Oaks school board is installing exterior cameras, which record the license plate, make of the car, even the hair colour of the driver who passes a school bus illegally.

Although the board is among the first in Canada to take the step, transportation experts say the cameras will become much more common on the roads as the technology continues to improve and prices fall.

Don Remillard, director of transportation with Seven Oaks, said complaints from school bus drivers about cars constantly blowing past stopped school buses while children were getting on or off prompted the board to outfit eight of its 37 buses with digital cameras. The cameras will become standard options on new school buses within the next few years, he said.

In the past, bus drivers were asked to write down the licence plate numbers of offending drivers. Now Remillard said they will have something much more substantial to hand over to police.

"What's happened in the past, it becomes an issue of 'he said, she said'," Remillard said.

"If we have this photography, they can go to court with it and it holds up in court."

While some say installing outdoor cameras on buses isn't going to stop drivers from taking risks, others argue it will deter people by putting virtually irrefutable evidence in the hands of police and judges.

Bill Langdon, president of King Transportation in Manitoba, said the technology now available to school buses is incredible.

Where older clunky cameras used to record blurry images, he said today's digital ones can pick up sound and even record in the dark using night vision. A judge would be crazy not to admit such tapes into evidence when a child's life is at risk, he said.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," said Langdon, whose company provides transportation, maintenance and consulting services across Canada.

"I love it. In most cases, (the driver) won't even argue."

Camera manufacturers are practically "giving them away" to encourage school boards to install them, said Ken Reimer with Ford Fairway bus sales in Steinbach, Man.

While the cameras will be a tough sell in rural communities, Reimer said they are becoming increasingly popular in the city.

But some say such cameras are vulnerable to the same legal challenges as red-light cameras and won't do anything to stop aggressive drivers who are determined to pass a school bus.

Brian Lawrie, founder of the traffic ticket defence company Pointts, said school bus cameras likely won't be able to identify who was driving the car when it sped past a stopped bus.

Lawrie, a former police officer, said it also won't do much to stop drivers who are in a hurry.

"Short of laying down spike strips behind these buses, I don't know how you're going to stop these people," he said.

But he has a few ideas: Increase police enforcement and create heavier penalties for drivers who are caught. He said people who are pulled over by police don't soon forget the experience, especially if they stand to lose six demerit points and face a $2,000 fine.

All the video compiled by school buses around the country won't make a difference if police don't have the resources to enforce the law, he added.

"The only thing you can do is increase the certainty of being caught," Lawrie said. "That's the best deterrent."