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Senate votes on roadway safety measures

WBFO file photo

The New York State Senate acted Wednesday on measures that they say will improve safety on the state’s roads, including adding cameras to the stop arms of school buses.

Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat who is chair of the Transportation Committee, said an estimated 50,000 drivers per day in New York pass a stopped school bus. He said that happens despite the buses’ red flashing lights and a stop sign arm.

“It is absolutely unconscionable, and it’s illegal,” Kennedy said. “But unfortunately, over the years there hasn’t been an enforcement measure in place. That changes today.”

Kennedy said those drivers will now be held accountable. School districts will have the option of requesting cameras from law enforcement in their communities and installing them on the stop arms. Police can then review the footage caught by the cameras and issue a $250 fine to anyone recorded passing a stopped school bus. Municipalities where the school district is located would have to finance the program.  

It would take effect in the school year that begins in September.

A second measure would require that passengers in the back seat of a car be required to wear seat belts. Bill sponsor Sen. David Carlucci, a Democrat from the Hudson Valley, said passengers not wearing seat belts are eight times more likely to be killed or injured in a car crash. And he said ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber have increased the number of people who ride in the back seat of cars.

“We need to send the message that you have to wear your seat belt, regardless of where you’re sitting in that vehicle,” Carlucci said.

The measure would fine both the driver and the passenger if the passenger is older than 16 and is caught not wearing a seat belt in the back seat. Current rules already fine the driver if a passenger younger than 16 is not using a seat belt.

Another measure updates driver education curriculum and road tests to train drivers to better watch out for bicyclists and pedestrians. Sen. Andrew Gounardes is the sponsor.

“The roadways have changed,” said Gounardes, a Brooklyn Democrat. “Now we have many more pedestrians using our roadways, many more cyclists using our roadways, we have motorized bikes, we have e-bikes.”

E-bikes and scooters are currently illegal in New York. Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said Democrats have not yet discussed a bill to legalize the vehicles.

The Senate package also includes waterway safety measures. A bill known as Brianna’s Law would require that owners and operators of boats undergo a safety training course. It is named after Brianna Lieneck, who was killed at the age of 11 in a 2005 boating accident off the coast of Long Island that also severely injured several members of her family. 

Sen. Phil Boyle, a Republican from Long Island who previously sponsored the bill, said he and his wife heard the sirens of emergency vehicles responding to the accident from their front porch.

“We would not hand a set of keys to someone and just say, ‘Go out there and drive down the road,’ ” Boyle said. “The water is the same way. And the vehicles are just as dangerous and just as deadly.”

Lieneck’s mother and sister were present for the vote.

The traffic and boating safety measures passed with little controversy, though several Republican senators voted against the seat belt requirement. Some GOP senators also voted against the boating safety requirement, saying it doesn’t go far enough to cover those who rent boats.

The state Assembly already has approved several of the measures, including the cameras on school bus stop arms and the boating safety measure. Gov. Andrew Cuomo backs many of the measures and is expected to sign them.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.