When Great Salt Bay Community School’s head bus driver Debby Newell makes her rounds of Damariscotta and Newcastle each weekday, she increasingly sees drivers pause, look her in the eyes, and keep driving – a criminal offense.
“It’s good that we don’t cross any kids (across the road), because the kid would have to walk up over their roof,” she said.
The school’s facilities committee plans to ask for three additional cameras and a longer extendable stop sign this year at the staff’s request in effort to record more drivers who do not stop for the bus.
By state law, drivers coming from either direction must stop for a school bus when its red lights are flashing. Not stopping is a Class E crime punishable by at least a $250 fine for the first offense and a mandatory 30-day driver’s license suspension for a second offense if it happens within three years of the first.
Newell, who has driven buses at GSB for over 30 years, noticed an increase in traffic disregarding this law over the past few years. Lately, drivers fail to stop about once a week on her route alone. Newell is one of five bus drivers transporting the students of Bremen, Damariscotta, and Newcastle.
Her drivers report the most incidents on Main Street and Bristol Road. There have been no close cases of students almost being hit on GSB bus routes so far, she said.
“We’re all kind of looking at each other going, ‘This isn’t going to stop until somebody gets hurt or killed,’” Newell said.
Drivers do what they can for preventative measures, including the longtime policy of no stops that will require children to cross a main road to get home. Newell said staff tries to train their passengers to look at the bus driver and wait for a signal that it’s safe to walk. Sometimes she has to grab a student by the collar or shut the bus doors in their face to keep them safe.
“You start wondering. OK, so they know they can get away with it. They’re just (going to) do that faster,” Newell said of drivers. “The safest thing is just don’t have the kids crossing the road. We do a lot of turning around.”
The three ProVision cameras requested for this year’s budget cycle are $775 each. Drivers are also requesting a long-arm stop sign for $3,000 on one of the busses to extend into the passing lane. Other area school districts have these tools in use already, Newell said.
All five of the school’s buses currently have dashboard cameras, which sometimes catch plate numbers but often can’t capture the details needed to report the drivers to law enforcement. In Damariscotta, those reports go to the town’s police department; in Bremen and Newcastle, to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office. Newell averages about eight reports to law enforcement each year.
It can be hard for bus drivers to collect the details they need to send in those complaints because they are focused on the children, according to Newell, though they try their best.
She described the steps involved in drop-off and pickup: looking for pedestrians and traffic, turning on yellow warning lights 200 feet ahead of the stop, opening the door to activate the red lights, checking traffic, directing students on or off the bus, counting the number of passengers, and waiting for them to make it home or, at pickup, to sit down.
“There are a bunch of distractions going on at that time inside and outside the bus,” Newell said.
The new cameras would capture the front and back of passing cars during this busy period.
“We’re not going to waste the (district attorney’s) time or the court’s time unless we have all the information that we need,” she said.
Cases are typically resolved with the fine, according to Newell. She has been to court twice through her career. Though she knows the courts are busy, she sees collecting and reporting the information as due diligence.
Damariscotta Police Chief Jason Warlick said his department will charge operators with the criminal offense after an investigation when bus drivers send in complaints and fill out a form. From there, the cases move on to the office of District Attorney Natasha Irving, where the police department’s involvement ends. Warlick said the school was fortunate to have technology to catch offenders.
“There are not very many places in this world where we have that kind of precious cargo in one spot,” he said. “When that school bus has its lights on, it’s inevitably dropping off that precious package.”