ANNAPOLIS, Maryland – Drivers who illegally pass school buses in Maryland multiple times could face higher fines, and rental-car companies could be held responsible for offenders driving their vehicles under a pair of bills introduced by Delegate Al Carr, D-Montgomery.
One bill would double the fees for repeat offenders, Carr said. The current law states that the registered owner of a car that illegally passes a school bus, except rental cars and short-term leased cars, will get an automatic fine of $125, regardless of how many times the car has been recorded violating the law. Currently, if they take the ticket to court, they could receive up to a $250 fine.
Last spring, an annual statewide survey conducted by the Maryland Department of Education showed “a total of 4,326 violations of school bus stop arms were recorded on a single day,” according to a Sept. 6 press release. This report shows an increase from 2015, when bus drivers in the state recorded over 2,795 violations.
“This bill raises a question,” Carr told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “I’m curious why people are driving around school buses and why is it happening so often.”
Carr said there has been a lot of outreach to raise the fee to teach all offenders a lesson, but he said he believes increasing the fee for repeat offenders is a good first step. He said raising fees solely for repeat offenders targets the issue at hand in a smarter way, separating those who go around buses by accident from those who do it willingly.
The highest recorded number of violations reported during the annual one-day survey was from 2011, when 7,011 violations were reported, according to the education department. The following year, “the Maryland General Assembly authorized the use of school bus monitoring cameras on Maryland roadways to help combat the illegal passing of school buses,” according to Capt. Tom Didone, director of the Montgomery County Police Department Traffic Division.
Didone said four Maryland counties are using school bus safety cameras, including Montgomery, Frederick, Washington and Prince George’s. The devices, which Carr compared to red light and speed cameras, are attached to the sides of school buses and record videos of the cars passing by.
According to Didone, within the first 72 days of Montgomery County’s school bus safety camera program start on Oct. 13, the police department issued more than 4,100 citations with the help of 100 buses equipped with cameras.
“That is a rate of slightly over 52 violations per day in Montgomery County,” Didone said in his Feb. 9 testimony to the House Environment and Transportation Committee. “It is important to note that we are only currently conducting enforcement on approximately 10 percent of the county’s (buses).”
“We’re appalled that we’re getting this may citations so early and we need to do something to discourage it,” Didone said.
Carr said these numbers are outrageous, unacceptable and puzzling.
Sheri Schully, PTA president of Waters Landing Elementary School in Germantown, Maryland, said she’s witnessed cars pass school buses illegally, but the numbers reported were still a lot higher than she would’ve expected.
“It makes me extremely angry,” she said. “Especially with elementary school kids. They’re not necessarily aware of what’s going on and the drivers need to be.”
Didone said he supports the penalty increase for repeat offenders. “Although $125 is significant, we do not believe that it is proportionate to the severity of the offense, nor is it (enough money) to effectively deter (them) from occurring,” he said.
The Montgomery County Board of Education, which supports both of Carr’s bills, said in written testimony that $125 is not enough to discourage drivers from illegally passing a school bus, pointing to the number of citations.
Didone said even though they had not had any repeat offenders in the 72 days of the program’s operation as of Feb. 9, the police department’s goal is to discourage the bad behavior and prevent a close call, which they have not yet had.
Carr’s second bill would hold rental companies responsible for drivers who illegally pass a school bus in rented vehicles.
In its testimony supporting the legislation to make rental cars pay the fee, the Montgomery County Board of Education said “student safety is of the (utmost) importance regardless of the owner of the vehicle.”
Richard Hetherington, the automated traffic enforcement manager with the Montgomery County Police, expects about 10 percent of vehicles caught by the school bus cameras to be rejected because they are rented vehicles.
“So, in essence, (we’re) allowing approximately six drivers a day and approximately 412 drivers this school year to avoid being penalized for passing a stopped school bus and potentially endangering school children and their parents or caregivers,” Hetherington said.
Enterprise Holdings, an international rental car company, submitted written testimony opposing this legislation. The company said the bill would place consequences on the rental company rather than those who actually violated the law.
“This places rental companies in the position of having to first pay a citation and then recapture the fine money it paid by attempting to charge the customer a fee weeks—if not months—after the vehicle has been returned,” the company said.
The company reports that should the bill pass, it expects 30 percent of the fines they pay to not be reimbursed by those who violated the law.
According to Carr, seven out of the 12 other states with similar school bus programs do not exempt rental vehicles from paying the fees that come with the violations. The other four states, were either silent or deferred the payment to the registered owner of the car, which could be a rental company.
Carr said today’s technology allows rental agencies to pass fees along to the drivers of the vehicles. “This is already happening in Maryland for toll violations,” Carr said.
Carr said many rental-car company contracts state if there is a violation given to the vehicle while a person is in possession of the car, the company can pass the fee on to the driver with an additional administrative fee.
Enterprise counters the claim that because it pays fees for toll programs it should do the same for school bus cameras. The intended purpose of each program is different, the rental-company wrote: “One is intended to generate revenue and the other is intended to promote safety.”
Didone said the money collected from the school bus-camera violations goes into the county’s general fund, which is designated for public safety in Montgomery County, and would help cover the cameras’ cost.
The cameras will be installed on Montgomery County buses over the course of three years, according to Didone. “A total of 500 buses will be outfitted by the end of 2017 and the remaining buses will be outfitted by June of 2019,” he said.
“Under our current contract, our vendor, FXS, has agreed to install cameras on all 1,200 (buses) at no upfront costs to the county,” Didone said.
The total investment for the cameras is expected to cost between $12 million and $13 million, according to Didone. The vendor will then receive the revenue from the citations until they recoup their costs, he said. “The Police Department approves all of the citations and ensures that only valid citations are issued so there is no incentive for the vendor,” Didone said.
“As a PTA president of an elementary school I haven’t heard any concerns from parents about the cameras,” Schully said. “The safety of the students is at the forefront of my mind.”