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Improvements to Buffalo's school zone program: what the city wants drivers to know

school zone beacon
Posted at 5:44 PM, Dec 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-31 18:24:50-05

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — For the first time since the School Zone Safety Program went fully live in the City of Buffalo back in October, 7 Eyewitness News was able to sit with Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer to discuss the program.

Since it’s launch, it’s gotten plenty of revisions and corrections, but Helfer said there is still some confusion he wants to clear up.

Starting with the times drivers can be ticketed.

“Since the beginning, I’ve been saying one size does not fit all every school’s start time and end time are different.”

It was originally proposed in University District Councilman Rasheed Wyatt’s resolution before the council to have hours be 7:30-9:30 am and 2:30-4:30pm, but this measure didn’t get signed into law.

What the law actually says is that the camera technology can be used whenever the beacons are flashing only during the drop off and pick up periods which are one hour before or after school starts and ends.

And this was confusing to some, so a change was made to the way beacons operate recently.

“We’re going to have the beacons on all day long so people know they’re in a school zone…[when] students are in the building.”

So, now drivers will see the flashing lights on all day when students are at a school because the 15 mph is active during the duration of the day, even though the cameras are only allowed to ticket at arrival and drop off.

But, warning, you can still be ticketed by a police officer for going above 15 mph in the middle hours — and that ticket, unlike the $50 citation, can cost you much heftier fines and points off your license.

Another complaint the public had was about signage.

“I think our signage is very very clear,” said Helfer.

“A lot of people are saying it isn’t. We’ve added more signage than the law says we have to do and we will continue to do that.”

Many drivers claimed they were unaware of being in a school zone when turning off of side streets into the active zone. Helfer said he has been working with the City’s Public Works office to add signage to the areas to warn drivers of where they are.

“We do hear the public when they do speak, and if we do think it makes sense to add things to make it easier that’s what we are trying to do.”

The next problem Helfer’s office had to tackle was the inundation of calls and emails from people frustrated and nervous about getting late notices.

But in recent weeks, his staff has been able to catch up and call people back and help them to book dates for a hearing — Helfer said this has significantly decreased anxiety and anger over the program.

“They’re very gracious just to get a call back, just to know what all their options are,” he shared. “I think over the last three or four weeks the big difference over this whole program is if people have questions, they’re getting their answers, answered quickly.”

It’s preferred people call 3-1-1 and wait for a callback with any issues.

At this point a 2-day turnaround time is average for his staff, said Helfer.

A staff, he added, that has been battling the coronavirus and working from home, but is going to get some reinforcements when the camera vendor is able to open a local call center in Buffalo — expected in the coming months.

“They’re going to have a call center locally here in Buffalo and I think that’s very important. Buffalonians know Buffalonians. It’ll be great to have a call center here.”

Many notices have arrived significantly late for many, and included language that threaten suspension of registration or late fees.

Helfer shared with 7 Eyewitness News the internal guidelines that have been in effect in his office sine the start of the program: “Don’t overreact, we’re not going to suspend your license. We’re not going to say you’re going to pay a $25 additional fee, that is not going to happen.”

If this changes in the future, he said he will communicate the new rules to the public, but as of right now these penalties are not being applied.

Additionally, we were told drivers cannot get more than one ticket within a 15-minute period.

Finally, we asked the Commissioner: “Why now?”

Many of our viewers have questioned the timing of the lucrative safety program in a year filled with a lot of changes for all Americans and in the middle of a pandemic where many Buffalonians are struggling financially

Helfer gave a two-fold answer:

1. The program was actually developed and launched pre-pandemic and

2. It’s about changing the culture of drivers in Buffalo — who are consistently ranked as some of the worst by insurance companies. He said that can’t change if there continue to be pauses and gaps in the program.

“We’re not going to quit on it. Public safety cannot be compromised. We are going to continue to do this and we are going to strive every day to do it better and we will strive every day to make our community safer.”

Here are the enforcement hours you should be aware of for the zones recently active in the City of Buffalo:

Canisius High School
St. Joseph University School
Buffalo Promise Neighborhood Children's Academy
Nichols School
Notre Dame Academy