The Washington Post

D.C. school buses racked up traffic-camera violations

Collision # 201106043 On June 9, 2011: A collision between a school bus registered as number BE5016 and another school bus. The collision occurred on the corner of Eastern Avenue and Booth Lane NE in Washington D.C. The driver, attendant, and two students on the bus were transported to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries. (The Department of Transportation Collision Report )

Traffic cameras in the District have caught city school bus drivers speeding and running red lights hundreds of times in recent years, and — unlike most drivers in the District — they haven’t had to pay the tickets, according to city records.

D.C. school bus drivers racked up 327 traffic-camera tickets from January 2009 to March 2013, amassing $34,745 in unpaid fines, motor vehicle records show. According to a Washington Post analysis of city data, the buses received tickets at a per-mile rate that was 16 times more frequent than the city’s fleet of Metro buses and other Metro vehicles, and was akin to the rate of city police vehicles, which often trigger the cameras while responding to emergencies. Such police-related tickets are dismissed.

A Post investigation found that school bus drivers paid only about a dozen of the tickets during that time and none faced disciplinary action for exceeding the city’s speed limits and entering intersections against opposing traffic, sometimes with children on board. More than 20 drivers caught speeding and running red lights also had crashed school buses, injuring people in four of those accidents, a Post analysis of city records has found.

One bus was photographed speeding and running red lights six times in one month. Another driver was caught on camera speeding five times in five months.

City officials said they were unsure whether efforts were made to identify the drivers responsible, but The Post identified many of the drivers by reviewing school bus logs obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which is in charge of city school buses. The Post also analyzed OSSE crash reports, citation lists from the Department of Motor Vehicles, police reports and D.C. Superior Court case records.

The Metro Police Department is investigating a slew of incidents where D.C. school bus drivers have run red lights. (Metro Police Dept.)

The records and interviews show that school bus drivers weren’t paying their tickets and that OSSE officials didn’t have policies in place to discipline offenders.

“That’s completely unacceptable,” said John Matthews, a transportation consultant and the transportation director for Montgomery County Public Schools from 2004 to 2009. “If no one is holding them to account, then there’s no incentive for drivers to not speed and run red lights.”

OSSE officials said they are aware of the violations and have enacted policies in the past few months to make sure school bus drivers are held accountable.

“We take safety very, very seriously,” said Ryan Solchenberger, OSSE’s student transportation director. “We are operating a safe student transportation system. But with 32,000 miles every day, there will be incidents; there will be accidents.”

Stack of unpaid tickets

The District’s school bus operation is relatively small compared with most Washington area school districts. Its drivers transport about 3,200 students with disabilities to school. Although the buses accumulate mileage because some travel as far as Annapolis, most of the city’s 83,000 students at public schools and public charter schools get rides from caretakers, take public transportation or walk.

D.C.’s fleet of about 750 school buses navigate streets that have seen a proliferation of traffic cameras during the past decade. The city has one of the most robust photo enforcement programs in the country, with 49 red-light cameras and 67 speed cameras capturing offenders’ license plates. In fiscal 2012, the DMV processed 1 million traffic-camera tickets and collected $90.7 million in fines.

Although city school buses account for a tiny fraction of those offenses, their 327 tickets were twice the 162 tickets that WMATA’s 1,487 buses and other vehicles received from January 2009 to March 2013. The city’s 1,200 police patrol cars and other vehicles netted 257 such tickets during that span, many of them while legally rushing to emergencies.

One camera, positioned on North Capitol Street in Northeast, videotaped a school bus rushing through a red light during its afternoon route in December 2012.

The driver, Tamarra Coates, was on her way to pick up two students at Kingsbury Day School that afternoon, according to school bus logs. The District sent the ticket to OSSE transportation managers, who are supposed to identify the driver and make him or her pay the ticket, according to city records. But no one knows if they did, because the division had no policies in place to check whether the ticket was paid or to discipline the driver, OSSE officials said.

Instead, the citation was added to a growing stack of unpaid tickets. The driver had a history of traffic infractions — including a previous arrest warrant for failing to show up in court for driving on a suspended license — and had had three school bus accidents, one of which sent a woman to the hospital, according to city and court records.

In April 2013, a police officer clocked Coates speeding 32 mph over the limit in a bus with a child on board. Records show that Coates was arrested and another bus driver finished the route. A Superior Court judge convicted Coates, 42, of speeding more than 30 mph over the limit and placed her on probation, which ended last month.

She is still driving children to school, according to OSSE records.

The Post attempted to reach Coates at her home, by phone and via a letter through her union representative. In text messages with The Post, she denied that she ever sped in a bus or injured anyone in a crash.

“Don’t u think I would be fired already if I was doing 72 mph on a school bus,” she said in one text message.

If convicted today of a similar speeding violation in a D.C. school bus, a driver would lose his or her job. Under new rules implemented after The Post began inquiring about traffic violations last year, drivers caught speeding more than 15 mph over the limit in a school bus are immediately terminated.

Drivers caught running a red light must take safety training, and after three red-light violations in one year, they will be fired.

Drivers cite pressures

For a decade, the school bus system was under court control after parents sued the District in 1995 for failing to meet the needs of special-education students. Among other grievances, they said school buses were unsafe and almost always late.

In 2012, after a 21/2-year transition period, OSSE persuaded the court that it had turned things around. But officials said the system they inherited immediately proved challenging because drivers often missed work, buses broke down and managers overlooked traffic-camera citations.

“The priority was focused on how to manage the day-to-day operations,” Solchenberger said. “Not to dismiss the importance of moving violations.”

He acknowledged that failing to arrive on time put OSSE at risk of violating a federal court order. Students now arrive at school before the first bell 98 percent of the time, he said.

But that impressive statistic comes at a cost, drivers say. They say they are under intense pressure to drop off children at school within a 20-minute window, which can lead them to feel compelled to cut corners.

“Does that excuse speeding and running lights? No,” said Andrew Washington, who represents local school bus drivers through the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “But they shouldn’t make us play a game we can’t win.” He said he has handled about 100 cases in the past year involving drivers who say they were unfairly punished for arriving late.

Driver James Waddill said buses are often behind schedule before they leave the bus yard. He said drivers often find broken bus equipment during their morning inspections, and bus terminals get clogged as everyone tries to leave at the same time.

“They’ll send you out late and want you to get there on time, so some drivers rush,” said Waddill, who was twice caught on camera speeding, according to bus logs. Waddill did not respond to questions about those citations.

The Post found that school transportation officials — before and after OSSE took responsibility for busing — ignored the warning signs for years. Managers review the driving record of each school bus driver once a year, the minimum under federal law. But the office was not matching drivers with the photo enforcement tickets they had received, so no one was paying them.

“It’s really disappointing,” said Priscilla Johns, whose 12-year-old daughter was injured in a minor school bus crash in 2009. “They’re not thinking about the lives on the bus.”

Johns’s daughter refused to ride a school bus after the accident sent her and three other students to the hospital. Their school bus pulled out in front of a Jeep Cherokee on Maryland Avenue in Northeast, according to crash reports, and the Jeep slammed into the back of the bus. The impact threw Johns’s daughter from her seat, and she hit her head against the side of the bus. Police cited the bus driver for not yielding to the other driver’s right of way.

830 school bus crashes

Using available school bus logs and motor vehicle records, The Post identified D.C. bus drivers responsible for 74 of the tickets issued since 2012. A review of local traffic court records then determined a driver’s history.

Among them was Fritz Aubin, who had half a dozen personal traffic citations before he was caught on camera in April 2012 running a red light in a school bus, according to city and court records. Managers didn’t make him pay the red-light ticket. A week later, Aubin crashed that bus after dropping off students at school, according to OSSE records.

He was then arrested in October 2013, when police saw him at 8 a.m. outside his school bus after it ran out of gas on Pennsylvania Avenue and Eighth Street in Southeast, according to police reports. Three children in wheelchairs sat in the bus as Aubin was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. He was fired that month after nearly nine years on the job.

Aubin pleaded not guilty to the DUI charge, and his trial is set for June. Aubin did not respond to phone calls, and he declined to comment when approached after a January court hearing. His lawyer, Carrie Crawford, declined to answer questions, saying only: “He’s innocent.”

The Post’s discovery of the traffic offenses, crashes and unpaid traffic tickets comes as the District’s risk managers push departments across the city to closely monitor drivers. In 2012, they began sending letters to city departments asking them to discipline drivers who had repeatedly crashed city vehicles and injured people.

There were 830 school bus crashes between May 2010 and May 2013, with about one in every nine leading to injuries, crash reports show. Most accidents were minor, but at least 40 children were hospitalized. Bus drivers could have avoided 44 percent of all the accidents, school crash investigators determined, according to city records.

People injured by school vehicles won more than $1 million in court judgments and settlements in the past four years. In February 2013, a jury awarded $400,000 to a Maryland man who suffered spinal nerve damage when a school bus pulled out in front of his GMC Yukon on East Capitol Street in Southeast. Lawrence Simms, 50, said the only thing going through his mind in the moments before the crash was the possibility that children on the bus might be injured in it. He was relieved to find out later that no children were on board.

“It’s half a ton of steel coming at you,” said Simms, who was on his way to pick up his girlfriend from work when he was hit. “If there were kids on the bus, I think I would have had a heart attack.”

Simms later had surgery to remove two herniated discs and says he can’t sit or stand for long. He said it ruined his chance to keep working as a security guard, his profession of 25 years.

OSSE officials point out that the District’s school bus system has a lower accident rate than some others, with an average of 0.92 preventable accidents per 100,000 miles, just less than Prince George’s County’s rate of 1.1. Fairfax County reports a rate of 0.6, and the national average is 1.5 accidents per 100,000 miles, according to the Council of the Great City Schools. Montgomery County has a reported accident rate of 0.17, but that rate includes only accidents that cause injuries or at least $1,500 in property damage.

Solchenberger said that drivers who get tickets will now face penalties as part of OSSE’s new rules.

He said most of the previously unpaid citations have been handed to drivers and paid. Others remain outstanding because older bus logs are no longer available. As of March, school bus drivers owed $13,000 in unpaid traffic-camera fines, down from the nearly $50,000 they owed last spring, motor vehicle records show.

“We know these things need to be taken care of, and now we have systems in place to do that,” Solchenberger said.

Ted Mellnik and David Fallis contributed to this report.

This article was published in partnership with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.



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