Education Top News — 08 February 2012
By
Capital News Service

COLLEGE PARK – Maryland drivers who illegally pass a stopped school bus may soon receive a ticket in the mail, as several counties move closer to mounting traffic cameras on the sides of buses.

A state law passed last year gave counties permission to equip school buses with video cameras to catch drivers who pass the yellow vehicles when they stop to drop off students and the on-board stop sign is engaged.

Maryland is one of a handful of states that allows school bus traffic cameras. On Tuesday, Frederick County commissioners voted to become the first local jurisdiction in the state to begin using the cameras.


Video courtesy the Xerox Corporation.

Elected leaders in at least two other Maryland counties – Montgomery and Washington – are pushing for similar laws that would install the cameras before the start of the next school year.

Frederick will install approximately 20 cameras on buses over the next 60 days. The county will review bids from a small group of vendors and test out each of the photo-automated units before May 1, when the program will go live and begin issuing $250 tickets to drivers.

“We are moving full-steam ahead,” said Frederick Board of County Commissioners president Blaine Young. “And, in terms of expansion, a lot will be determined by the vendor and the cost of the devices,” he said.

The cameras, which cost between $1,000 and $2,000, will be installed on buses that follow routes where violations commonly occur, Young said.

In Washington County, Sheriff Douglas Mullendore said he is urging county and school board leaders to pass an ordinance that would put the cameras in place by the fall.

“In one school year, the sheriff’s office has issued 70 citations, and that’s considering that we only have a couple deputies to follow buses. We receive many other reports from bus drivers,” Mullendore said.

Montgomery County is considering similar legislation that could match the program in Frederick. Valerie Ervin, D-Silver Spring, sponsored a bill to install cameras on buses, and said that she expects the bill to pass a full council vote next month.

School bus cameras are in use in a few other states, including Cobb County, Ga., where a driver struck and killed a 5-year-old student exiting a school bus in 2009.

Cobb County implemented their enforcement program because of the incident, and has been using it for the last year. Over the last year, the county has issued 300 tickets – twice as many as the previous year.

The cameras detect vehicle traffic in both directions on both sides of the bus, said Rick Grisham, the transportation director for Cobb County schools.

The video cameras record continuously while the school bus is in operation. When an illegal pass occurs, the bus driver hits a button to digitally mark the video. The video is then reviewed by district officials. They have 10 days to confirm the violation and issue a ticket with a photo of the illegal pass, Grisham said.

“Bus drivers that we are talking to are saying that the people are slowing down. They know that we are watching them,” Grisham said.

While the move to consider bus cameras was not caused by a specific incident in Montgomery County, Ervin said the cameras would reduce the likelihood of a deadly incident.

“It’s going to save lives. Right now, there are not enough police officers to patrol violations,” she said.

In a statewide study conducted last year by the Maryland State Department of Education, more than 7,000 illegal school bus passes were counted in a one-day period across the state’s 24 school districts. The study led districts to consider the cameras and other methods for school bus safety, said the department’s spokesman Bill Reinhard.

“The key here is that we are looking to improve safety for our children and that’s why we produced this particular report. It’s clearly an issue and different jurisdictions are looking at how to handle it in different ways,” Reinhard said.

Putting additional traffic cameras on roadways already equipped with speed cameras and red-light cameras concern some drivers, said John B. Townsend II, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“There are many weapons in their arsenal,” he said. “What we have done is turned over the whole process of traffic enforcement to automation, and traffic enforcement is too important to turn over to cameras.”

Compared with the $250 camera-enforced fine, Townsend said a driver may think twice about passing a school bus illegally if they’re pulled over by police.

Under Maryland law, an officer can ticket a driver upwards of $1,000 and add two points to the driver’s license for an illegal pass of a stopped bus.

In Cobb County, school leaders said they switched to camera enforcement because police enforcement was difficult and violations were happening routinely within the school district.

Cameras are now installed in more than 100 buses in Cobb County, and Grisham said they are considering adding more cameras to an upgraded fleet of 400 buses.

“We feel like we are on the leading edge of a national effort,” Grisham said. “Ultimately, this is about keeping students safe.”


A one-day, snapshot study in 2011, counted how many illegal passes occurred at school bus stops in Maryland’s 24 local school districts. The study found more than 7,000 violations by motorists. Source: Maryland State Department of Education
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About the Author

Tim Ebner is an education beat reporter for Capital News Service. He is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. He has a background in journalism, public affairs and education policy, and has worked for Education Week, The (Annapolis, Md.) Capital and WFUV 90.7 FM in New York. He can be reached at tebner@umd.edu or follow him on Twitter @ebnert.