Caught on camera: Valley school bus drivers running red lights

PHOENIX - Arizona red light cameras captured more than two dozen Valley school bus drivers running red lights between 2010 and 2012, and at least two school bus drivers who ran red lights twice.

THE RESULTS

The ABC15 Investigators filed public records requests for traffic citations issued to school district employees in cities with red light cameras. 

The districts we examined included the following: Dysart Unified , Phoenix Elementary , Phoenix Union High School , Chandler Unified , Mesa Public Schools , Scottsdale Unified , and Paradise Valley Unified .

Employees who drove district vehicles in the state's largest school district, Mesa Public Schools, received the most citations. 

Bus drivers accounted for twenty-four of that district's red light violations.

Among the seven districts reviewed by the ABC15 Investigators, bus drivers in the Scottsdale Unified School District had the second highest number of red light citations with six.

"RED MEANS STOP"

None of the school bus red light violations reviewed by the ABC15 Investigators involved crashes.  However, Frank Hinds, who runs the non-profit, Red Means Stop , says drivers who run red lights have no excuses.

"They're selfish.  They're irresponsible.  They're not paying attention," he told the ABC15 Investigators.  "They're in a hurry, and they don't think about the consequences of their actions."

Hinds' daughter, Jennifer, was killed in 1997 when a pickup truck ran a red light.

"When we got to the hospital, she was already in a coma, and they did surgery to relieve pressure on her brain," said Hinds, recalling the tragedy.

"I said to her at her bedside that I wouldn't let this go," he said, tears welling in his eyes.

After his daughter's death, Hinds pushed for Jennifer's law, which increased penalties for red light runners who injure or kill other people.

"I think if you're a school bus driver, you have an added responsibility to be a safe, responsible driver and to be aware of the lives that you're carrying in your bus.  If you can't pay attention to what you're doing – if you can't obey the law – if you can't be a safe driver, then you have no business driving a school bus, let alone a vehicle," he said.

THE DRIVER WITH THE HIT AND RUN

Arizona drivers are not required to have perfect records in order to qualify for a job as a school bus driver.  A driver must, however, qualify for a commercial driver license and a state bus certification. 

Mario Cesar Gomez, for example, was able to become a driver for the Mesa Public Schools, despite a misdemeanor hit and run traffic violation in his history.

According to the state's minimum standards for school bus drivers listed in Arizona Administrative Code, a driver must have had fewer than eight "points" on his or her driving record during the twenty-four months prior to applying for certification. 

Gomez's misdemeanor occurred in 2005.  Mesa Public Schools hired him in 2009.

Ron Latko, the district's transportation director, told ABC15 the district "probably would not" hire someone with a similar history as Gomez. 

He said he was not aware of Gomez's misdemeanor hit and run until the ABC15 Investigators told him.

"He's no longer on our staff," said Latko.  He said the district provides and requires additional training for drivers who receive traffic citations in district vehicles.

BUS DRIVER EXPLAINS TRAFFIC VIOLATION

Gomez told the ABC15 Investigators he lost his job in 2011 after he ran two red lights while driving a school bus.

He was one of two school district bus drivers who ran two red lights in a school bus between 2010 and 2012.

The other driver is no longer listed as a bus driver with the district.

"I was going in the intersection, but I stopped.  I kind of slowed down because there was a pedestrian crossing," Gomez explained about one of the incidents.  "It was already a yellow light that was already on."

"I think I was at fault because when you're a bus driver, you have to wait for the intersection to be clear before you proceed," he said.

Gomez, who is also a grandfather, insisted that his driving is safe and that he understands why other drivers would be concerned about his driving record.

"Parents ought to give bus drivers a break because they have a lot of responsibility – a lot of distractions when you're driving a school bus," he said.

Gomez said he was distracted by figuring out his new route during one of the incidents. 

"You've got your kids.  You've got your traffic.  I had a new route," he said. 

"When I was driving, I liked it," he said.  "It was fun to me, and I liked the kids and everything."

State rules also require that a driver "shall not have repeatedly received citations for violation of traffic law" during the ten years prior to applying in order to receive certification.

DISTRICT POLICIES

Latko said he takes traffic citations very seriously.  "It's upsetting.  I take it personally.  I'm a father.  I'm a grandparent," he said. 

Latko said his district may have up

to 423 buses on the road on any given day.  Drivers collectively travel 33,000 miles daily.

"We do the best we can," he said.  "We have a turnover of approximately thirty percent in transportation."

OTHER DISTRICTS

Some districts inspected by the ABC15 Investigators received traffic citations for other types of traffic violations committed by district drivers who were not driving school buses.  The ABC15 Investigators found the following red light violations for school bus drivers in districts other than Mesa between 2010 and 2012:

Chandler Unified School District: 0

School Hiring Policy/Statement:

Candidates for bus driver positions are screened for overall driving record, district background check as well as a Department of Public Safety background check.

DPS will certify someone with fewer than 8 traffic points on his/her driving record. In addition, DPS may deny certification to someone who has excessive violations even though points may be fewer than 8. 

Speeding tickets and red light violations go toward the accumulated point total and they are part of the overall record we consider for employment. Non-commercial drivers can have their points excused by attending traffic school so some driver candidates may have a red light violation that is not on his/her record. (These remain on the record of drivers with CDL.)

Drivers convicted of traffic offenses are provided additional training tailored to meet the needs of the driver as demonstrated by the type of citation received.

Phoenix Elementary School District: 1

School Hiring Policy/Statement:

Before we hire we do a check with DPS. If the citation is in a school bus within the past 3 or 4 years we pass on that driver. We cannot check on other citations only suspensions. 

A driver cited for anything in a school bus is forwarded to DPS and normally their bus endorsement is suspended from 3 months to 5 years.

We also report to DPS any violations we observe or that can be proven from video that could be hazardous to passengers on the bus.

Depending on their decision with regard to their bus endorsement make a recommendation to demote to a non driver position or recommend termination.

We do monthly training and if a driver is observed doing anything we feel could cause problems for them in the future they receive additional training in that area.  

Phoenix Union High School District : 1

School Hiring Policy/Statement:

First, they must meet the District job qualifications.

1. High school diploma or GED.

2. Valid CDL class B (or A) license with P and S (passenger and school bus) endorsement.

3. Valid AZ School Bus Driver's Certification.

4. Ability to relate to and understand special needs students.

5.  Current first-aid CPR certification.

6. Ability to maintain discipline on the bus in an appropriate manner.

7. One year experience driving a bus or vehicle larger than standard automobile desirable.

Second, they have to pass an interview where they are questioned about experience, training & work history as it relates to special needs school bus operation.

Third, they are sent for a pre-employment physical and drug testing.  If they pass they are submitted to the Department of Public Safety Student Transportation Division for a school bus driver's certification check and transfer of the certification to PUHSD.  Yes, they can be hired with any of the violations listed above, as long as they do not have 8 points on their license.  Running a red light without an accident is 4 points.   Anytime a school bus driver receives a citation, they are required to inform the DPS Student Transportation Division of the violation.  This is required even if they were cited while driving their personal vehicle.  If the citation is given while they are operating a PUHSD vehicle, we file an incident report to DPS/STD.

We review the facts surrounding the citation and develop a plan for additional training.  This training is usually between 4 and 12 hours depending on the circumstances/citation.   The training includes a review of safety practices, DOT, DPS and District rules, classroom and behind the wheel training.  This training is unpaid time for the bus driver.

Our first priority is the safe transportation of students.  Because of this we have implemented increased training for the bus drivers, and the bus attendants.  All school bus drivers are drug-tested annually as well as randomly throughout the year.  Our DPS/STD certified trainer performs a check ride with each bus driver during the school year.   PUHSD reviews school bus driver's licenses annually.   Everyone else that operates a district vehicle has a license review after completing renewal vehicle training, which is required every two years.   The Phoenix Union High School District takes any violation of safe practices very seriously. 

Scottsdale Unified School District: 6

School Policy/Statement:

Regarding

the policy for hiring bus drivers in the District, please view Governing Board policy EEAEA BUS DRIVER REQUIREMENTS, TRAINING, AND RESPONSIBILITIES by visiting www.susd.org ; Governing Board Policies; Scottsdale Policy Manual and Section E, Support Services. 

The Transportation Department Manual is currently under construction and will be posted on the Transportation webpage on the District's website in the near future. 

Please check the Transportation page periodically for the updated posted version. 

Lastly, information concerning bus drivers is also located in the Classified Employment Agreement which is posted on the SUSD website; Directory; Human Resources and then scroll to the Classified Section. Specifically, bus driver requirements are listed on page 15.

Dysart Unified School District: 1

Employees are hired into the District if they meet the qualifications of the position.  For example, a bus driver would have to pass a background check, fingerprint clearance check and possess a valid, current CDL.  Additionally they would be required to pass a skills test, physical test and a first aid test.

All drivers are required to possess a valid, current CDL to be able to drive a bus for the District.  In situations where District employees violate policy or regulations of the District, they are subject to disciplinary action.

Paradise Valley Unified School District: 0

Did not provide the School Hiring Policy by our deadline

 

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