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Colin Campbell: Partial traffic enforcement privatization the best solution?

By Colin Campbell

RALEIGH — Drivers who pass stopped school buses could get fined up to $1,000 under a bill that Gov. Roy Cooper signed on July 25 — but the hefty fine isn’t why legislators from both parties opposed the measure.

The technology is similar to red-light cameras. Systems operated by a private company automatically take photos of offenders’ cars, and the ticket comes in the mail. If you read news coverage of Cooper’s bill signing ceremony at a Greenville school, you might assume the technology wasn’t legal before this month.

But it was. Some school districts are already using the camera systems. Current law puts law enforcement agencies in the driver’s seat. Images taken by the cameras are sent to law enforcement, and they decide on any criminal charges.

Senate Bill 55 will partially sideline the traditional criminal justice process, and the biggest beneficiaries could be the private companies operating the camera systems. The new law lets counties use civil penalties instead of criminal charges, which means there’s a lower bar for a fine. It says criminal charges are “encouraged” when the evidence supports them, but if not, counties and schools can opt for the civil process. Those cases won’t automatically go to district court — where you typically end up for speeding tickets and other traffic violations — and drivers contesting the ticket have to go to a nonjudicial administrative hearing first.

So why is the state adding the civil process when schools can already use the cameras? Money. The bus camera systems aren’t cheap, so schools are hesitant to buy them if revenue from fines isn’t guaranteed to cover the cost.

The new law lets schools contract with companies to install and operate the systems.

There’s no upfront cost for schools, but the company can take the majority of the fines collected. One of the companies, Force Multiplier Solutions, takes 70 percent of the $300 fines charged under its contract with Bibb County, Georgia while local government gets the rest.

The company sweetened the pot by paying the schools $10,000 at the start of the contract. North Carolina’s new law doesn’t cap the amount a private contractor can take, but the remaining proceeds must go to schools.

That prompted Rep. Elmer Floyd, D-Cumberland, to call it a “cash cow” bill. Floyd was joined by six House Democrats and 26 Republicans in voting against the bill.

As the cameras grow more common, the state needs to beef up awareness efforts to make sure drivers understand the law. While most people know you can’t pass a stopped bus on a neighborhood street or country road, I realized I couldn’t remember the rules for wider roads. It’s legal to pass a school bus if you’re driving the opposite direction on a four-lane road with a median, but it’s never OK when there’s no median.

Legal concerns aside, it’s almost certain that more camera systems on buses will be a deterrent that saves a few lives. Passing buses has been considered a minor infraction for too long.

Years ago, I covered the case of a police captain who was found guilty of passing a stopped school bus. He kept his job and his rank, because the police chief said the offense wasn’t serious enough to warrant a demotion.

That case also showed the challenges of catching school bus passers without cameras. To hold the police officer accountable, the mother of a boy he nearly hit followed the officer’s car and wrote his license plate number on a gum wrapper. She had to testify in court that he was the driver.

For his part, the officer argued that he thought the bus driver was letting him pass before she turned the flashing yellow lights to red. I suspect many drivers have made the same excuse, because you never know exactly when yellow will change to red.

It’s hard to argue against cracking down on drivers who endanger school kids just to avoid a brief delay. I just wonder if partially privatizing traffic law enforcement is really the best solution.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.  Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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