New program to keep kids safe has serious flaws

Action News Jax | By Emily Turner | February 08, 2024

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Action News Jax found a program pitched to school districts as a way to keep kids safe has some serious flaws.

Investigator Emily Turner dug into the artificial intelligence used in school bus stop-arm cameras and found those flaws could cost drivers money and mar their driving record. Its designed to ticket people who violate the law, but the AI used isn’t always accurate.

The system is already in use in markets like Pittsburg, but drivers like Lance Dugger say there are major issues.

“I think it’s a way to make money,” he says. That’s because he got a three hundred dollar ticket in the mail and was so surprised he thought it was fake. “I might use stronger language like ‘robbing’ or ‘ripping off’ or ‘scamming,’” he said.

When he logged on to see the video footage of violation…it doesn’t show one. He never passed the bus.

The company behind the program is called BusPatrol, and it already operates on Putnam County school busses and other districts across the country.

The company also ran a pilot program on busses operated by Student Transportation of America, one of the companies Duval County Public Schools uses to transport students. A press release from the company says the pilot caught about 4,300 violations in a 10 month period, but according to the Duval County clerk of courts, no tickets were issued.

How it Works

The program tickets drivers for illegally passing busses with it’s red lights are flashing and stop arms are out. The smart cameras take pictures of what it identifies as violations. That data is then supposed to be reviewed for accuracy before a ticket is issued.

BusPatrol is one of the companies DCPS is considering contracting with in an effort to curb the dangerous driving, but drivers like Mekayla Frangos from Pittsburg say it doesn’t always work.

“Don’t let them hustle you,” Frangos warns. She says she got a three hundred dollar ticket and five points on her license because of issues with the way the local district interpreted the law.

“They said ‘we even ticketed the school bus.,’” she says, and “the gotcha moment was when the police officer with the school system said that center divide needs to be a certain height.”

Except local authorities disagreed with that. Pittsburg has had so many issues,  it is creating a new system where the state Department of Transportation will hear appeals virtually so people don’t have to pay an additional $110 court fee in order to fight the ticket.

Jay Beeber is the executive director of policy for the national motorists’ association and did an analysis of automated school bus ticketing cameras across the country.

He says the program, “is absolutely a money grab for the companies.” Beeber argues there are flaws in the system, like issuing tickets across a divided highway or as stop arms are folding in. But the biggest flaw, he says, is the system itself.

BusPatrol makes a profit, and so does the district that uses it, though the percentages of who gets what vary depending on the contract. “This is a real problem,” he says about the fact districts get to pocket some of the fines, “that’s clearly a perverse incentive to put in these systems and ticket as many people as possible.”

He says data nationwide shows automated cameras don’t make kids safer, but it does make the company and districts a lot richer. For Frangos and drivers like her, that’s a losing combination. “We can all see through the hustle,” she says, “and the hustle is collecting as many $300 as possible from as many people, instead of protecting the kids.”

DCPS says it has talked to multiple vendors about installing the stop arm camera technology but “no decision has been made and no official procurement process has been initiated.”

The local pilot program was not the district’s doing. BusPatrol’s contract was with Student Transportation of America. BusPatrol has not given a comment when Action News Jax reached out.

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