Editor’s Note: The ticket camera companies are masters at exploiting the public’s emotional responses to traffic accidents and fatalities. Nothing like conjuring up a little fear and outrage to sell a few “safety” cameras, especially when the potential victims are school children. Nowhere is this cynicism more apparent than with school bus “stop arm” cameras that record alleged passing violations at school bus stops.
The camera companies would have us believe that school children are particularly vulnerable to careless motorists who don’t stop for the bus, but the truth is most school-age pedestrian fatalities involving school buses are caused by the bus. We’ve run the numbers here. Executive Director of the NMA Foundation Jim Walker provides his own provocative assessment of the safety value of school bus cameras in this letter to officials in Rockingham County, Virginia.
Dear Rockingham County Officials,
I have several points.
1) Please follow the math carefully to relate the probability that the school bus stop arm cameras could prevent an injury or fatality to a school child in Rockingham County.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports School Transportation-Related Crashes each year, for a 10 year period. The latest report is NHTSA report # 811890 covering 2003 through 2012. It shows that 36 under-age-19 pedestrians were killed by passing cars in that 10 year period. The numbers in the last 5 annual reports have been 36, 35, 32, 35, and 36 so the numbers are very stable over time. Note that this is less than one fatality per state per 10 years by passing vehicles, an extremely rare event.
Note also in this same 10 year time frame 83 under-age-19 pedestrians were killed by the school bus or a vehicle acting as the school bus, so 70 percent of the young pedestrian fatalities were caused by the bus, not by passing vehicles. The dangers to children are much higher from the buses than from other vehicles.
NHTSA does not produce reports for injuries of under-age-19 pedestrians in School Transportation-Related Crashes, but nationwide there are about 80 injuries for each fatality in all types of transportation crashes. It is likely that the number of such injuries for the decade of 2003-2012 is somewhere around 36 x 80 = 2,880. Dividing 2,880 by 51 for the states plus DC, and by 10 for the time frame, means an average of about 5.6 injuries per year per state for under-age-19 pedestrians in crashes with passing vehicles.
In the latest numbers I could find, Rockingham County had about 11,400 K-12 school children, so let’s look at the proportion for Rockingham County. The United States has about 54,876,000 K-12 school children, so Rockingham represents 11,400 divided by 54,876,000 = .000207741 of the countrywide total.
For fatalities: 36 x .000207741 = .007478676, so if every child in Rockingham County rides a school bus and the cameras prevented 100 percent of the fatalities from passing cars, the county would prevent .007478676 fatalities per decade, or .0007478676 fatalities per year. This means you could expect to prevent one fatality about every 1,337 years with the cameras.
For injuries: 2,880 x .000207741 = .59829408, so if every child in Rockingham County rides a school bus and the cameras prevented 100 percent of the injuries from passing cars, the county would prevent .59829408 injuries per decade or .059829408 injuries per year. This means you could expect to prevent one injury about every 16.7 years with the cameras.
I hope this proportional math makes it clear that any promises made to you or any hopes you have yourselves about actual safety results in Rockingham County in any reasonable time frame from the stop arm cameras are false. The numbers of injuries and fatalities caused by passing vehicles are very small overall, and Rockingham County has a very small proportion of the school age children in the nation.
2) In the above math, there are some assumptions that simply won’t be true.
a) It is likely that not every child rides the bus every school day.
b) The cameras will not stop 100 percent of the possible injuries or fatalities. Some of the crashes involve drivers that are DUI, medically impaired, heavily distracted by something, or even fleeing police. The chance that a ticket would be mailed to them after the fact will not affect those crashes, because those drivers either didn’t see the warning flashers on the bus at all, or deliberately ignored them.
c) Bad weather will sometimes cause some drivers to under-estimate their stopping distance, and they will slide into the danger area even when they see the warning flashers.
Ticket camera companies often promise a lot, but deliver a lot less, or sometimes deliver nothing of actual value for safety.
In short, in my opinion, the emotional appeal of stop arm cameras is very strong but the probabilities of actual safety results in Rockingham County are very near to zero.
James C. Walker
Life Member, National Motorists Association
Board Member and Executive Director, National Motorists Association Foundation