Minn. lawmakers mull school bus stop arm cameras to catch outlaw drivers

A Minnesota House committee on Tuesday advanced legislation increasing the fines to $300 for drivers who blow past school bus stop arms.

Of the fine, $250 would go to school districts to install stop arm cameras that would catch more violators.

The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, passed the House Transportation committee on a 14-3 vote.

"We have too many drivers on our roads that go right past our school buses. That's unacceptable," Wolgamott said.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety has reported numerous near-misses when drivers ignoring the stop arm have narrowly avoided hitting pedestrians outside a stopped school bus.

The Minnesota Sheriffs' Association estimates that there are as many as 100,000 violations of the state's stop-arm law every year, though few result in tickets because it's difficult for a bus driver to see and remember a speeding car's license plate. Statewide in 2019, the Minnesota State Patrol reported more than 1,100 citations. That same year, the State Patrol shared frightening video of a fourth grader's close call. 

Supporters say drivers who know they could be caught by a stop-arm camera are more likely to stop for a stopped bus.

Jean Souliere, the chief executive of Bus Patrol, a Canadian company that installs stop-arm cameras and then takes a cut of citation revenue, said his firm has put 15,000 cameras on buses. Souliere said his firm fronts the cost of the on-board technology, which he estimated at $5,000. He didn't say what percentage of the revenue his company takes.

Opponents drew comparisons to red light cameras that capture drivers who speed through red lights and then send a ticket to the vehicle's owner, a practice the Minnesota Supreme Court found violated state law. If the bill becomes law, a legal challenge is possible -- perhaps likely.

Supporters said the issues are different because the stop-arm video would complement the bus driver's eyewitness account.

"We want to make sure that when these tickets are issued, we are not at risk of contestation and reversal of fines," Souliere said.

Some lawmakers raised questions about data privacy. Souliere said the video is stored on the bus before being automatically uploaded to a cloud-based system that would allow law enforcement officials to review.

State Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said he doubted that law enforcement agencies would have the staff available to review videos for possible citations.

The legislation now heads to the House Judiciary committee.