A Falls Church City school bus, prior to being fitted with a video surveillance camera. The cameras would activate whenever the flashing red lights are on, when the bus is picking up or discharging students, and would capture the license plates of any vehicles passing while it's on. (John Wesley Brett/Falls Church City Schools)

It’s illegal in Virginia to drive past a school bus while it is picking up or discharging students, not to mention very dangerous. But who could consistently enforce such a law? Falls Church City says it can, and it approved an ordinance Monday night which would make it the first jurisdiction in Northern Virginia to use video surveillance cameras on the outside of school buses to capture license plates of those who drive past the flashing red lights.

“This came from the community,” said city spokeswoman Susan Finarelli, who said that citizens complained they frequently saw drivers cruising past stopped buses. In November, the city asked its bus drivers to keep track of how many cars illegally passed them while they were loading or unloading. In three days, the drivers reported 60 violations.

By unanimous vote, the Falls Church City Council approved placing video cameras on the rear corner of some or all of the city’s 17 buses, who cover more than 155,000 miles per year. No vendor has been selected, but the two biggest manufacturers both told Falls Church that they were the first in the state to adopt such a plan.

The vendor will monitor the footage and supply possible violations to the police. A sworn officer will review the tape and issue a civil summons if the license is clear and the violation is apparent. A $250 fine, but no traffic points or convictions, will be assessed, and it doesn’t matter if you weren’t driving: if it’s your car, you’re liable under Virginia law.

“We expect this program will change driving behavior and have a positive impact on the safety of the city's students,” said Falls Church police Captain Rick Campbell. “While the city has been fortunate to have not had an accident yet, it's only a matter of time. The safety of our community is our number one priority.”

[UPDATE: Since 2007, Washington County, Va., has been using cameras mounted inside their buses, pointed forward, to capture occasional violators, which they then send to the state police for a possible traffic summons, county transportation manager Tom Williams said Wednesday. This post, which originally said Falls Church would be the first in Virginia, has been updated to make it the first in Northern Virginia.]

The city hopes that the cost of the cameras, and using the vendors to monitor them, will be roughly balanced out by the fines brought in from the violators, Finarelli said. She didn’t know how many of the buses would be equipped with the cameras — no vendor has been hired yet — but said it would be on the buses with the mostly high-traffic routes.

Stephanie Oppenheimer, a Falls Church parent who worked with school and police officials to get the ordinance passed, said the council’s approval was “definitely a feel-good, ‘it takes a village’ moment.”

Oppenheimer has two boys, ages seven and 10. Both use “a bus stop on a fairly busy street,” Oppenheimer said, “where cars routinely blow by the stopped bus. We've even had cars swerve around us in the crosswalk. It’s gotten so commonplace that the most dangerous part of riding a school bus is literally getting off of it and getting on it.”

Oppenheimer said the program’s goal is not to make money, but simply to stop drivers from passing buses. “Keeping our youngest citizens safe is far more important than any revenue,” she said, “and that point was repeated again and again last night” by the Falls Church council.

Here is the ordinance as passed Monday night by the Falls Church council: