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If Minnesota drivers need an added incentive to obey school bus stop arms, bus cameras can see license plates

On one day in 2022, more than 1,000 drivers disobeyed school bus stop arms. With state help, more and more buses around Minnesota have cameras on their stop arms — good ones. The stop arm and flashing lights on buses are an important component of getting children to school and back home safely.

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The camera to record vehicles who illegally pass school buses while the stop arm is engaged sits just beneath the driver's-side window next to the stop arm on a Palmer Bus Service school bus.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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KANDIYOHI — In the first month of the school year, more than a handful of drivers have gone around area school buses while the bus stop arms were extended.

Statewide, the numbers are eye-popping. Each year, the state conducts a survey, asking bus drivers around the state to report the violations they see on a specific day. In 2022, 4,359 drivers reported 1,003 violations on that day, the highest since 2015.

Many school buses in the area now have cameras on their stop arms, which means it’s becoming easier to catch violators. The cameras capture clear images and can read license plates clearly as a driver pulls out to drive around a stop arm.

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Penny Dahlberg, who serves as the Palmer Bus Service site manager for the Willmar community, shows information regarding school bus laws on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Kandiyohi.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

“There’s no arguing it,” said Penny Dahlberg, site manager for Palmer Bus Service, which has a garage in Kandiyohi for Willmar buses. Palmer is one of two companies that transport Willmar students, along with Willmar Bus Service.

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Palmer Bus Service site manager Penny Dahlberg reviews footage captured by video cameras on the exterior of one of their school buses on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Kandiyohi. The company's garage for Willmar buses is located in Kandiyohi.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

The stop arm is extended when bus drivers stop to pick up or drop off students. While they try to avoid having students cross a road, it can’t always be avoided.

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Drivers who don’t stop could hit children with a vehicle, causing serious injury or death.

“This is a real issue for kids’ safety,” said John DuHoux, site manager at Palmer's Clara City bus garage for MACCRAY Public Schools.

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State law requires drivers to stop at least 20 feet from the front or back of a bus with its stop arm extended and red lights flashing. Red flashing lights always mean drivers need to stop.

“Maybe people aren’t aware” that they could be facing a $300 to $500 fine and a mandatory court appearance, DuHoux said.

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John Molacek, Palmer Bus Service site manager for the New London garage which serves New London-Spicer Schools, shows Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Kandiyohi how the new cameras on their school buses work to capture crystal-clear images of cars and license plates when they illegally pass when bus stop arms are activated.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Lakeland Avenue is a trouble spot in Willmar, Dahlberg said, and Willmar is a big trouble spot.

Drivers on Lakeland Drive seem to think they don’t have to stop because there’s a turn lane in the middle of the street, she said, but they are wrong. Distracted drivers are a problem, too.

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John Molacek, manager at Palmer's New London garage which serves New London-Spicer Schools, said his drivers have seen four stop-arm violations in the first month of the school year.

Two buses have been rear-ended by people who said they were blinded by the sun in recent weeks.

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Willmar Public Schools installed stop arm cameras on buses two years ago. MACCRAY and New London-Spicer installed cameras more recently.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety has provided grants to install stop arm cameras around the state.

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Cameras installed on Palmer Bus Service school buses capture in high definition the license plates of vehicles that illegally pass when stop arms are engaged to drop off and pick up children.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

What frustrates the bus managers is hearing people say they didn’t see a bus, because school buses aren’t small and have a distinctive look.

“We’re at the same spot, at the same time, five days a week,” Dahlberg said.

Their suggestion for people who become frustrated following a bus is to travel or run errands at a different time of day if possible.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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