Survey finds drivers continue to violate school bus laws

A recent statewide survey shows fewer drivers are flouting laws that require them to stop for school buses picking up and dropping off children, but the number of violations still remains in the thousands a day.

The Maryland State Department of Education's third annual survey showed driver violations have dropped by more than half since the first survey done three years ago. The survey found 3,392 violations in one day, down from 7,011 violations in 2011, the year the survey began.

With school in session about 180 days, that would equal more than half a million violations during a school year.

"That is still a lot of violations in the course of a year," said Leon Langley, director of pupil transportation for the state.

The survey was conducted in one day in April by 4,927 bus drivers and is considered a snapshot of illegal activity. About 70 percent of the school bus drivers in Maryland participated this spring, compared with 63 percent last year.

The bus drivers track how many violations they see during one day as they follow their route. Drivers in both directions are required to stop when a yellow bus stops, its lights flash and a stop arm extends from the bus.

Drivers who don't stop for buses face a fine of $570 and three points on their license. Drivers who stop but continue before the bus stop arm goes back up are subject to the fine and two points on their license.

Violations dropped in Baltimore County by more than 50 percent, from 1,143 to 499. Montgomery County, the largest system in the state, had 1,078 drivers ignoring the stop arm, according to the survey, while some of the smaller counties, such as Kent, Somerset and Talbot, had no violations.

Langley said he believes the numbers have dropped because of national, state and local efforts to shine a spotlight on the problem. Schools have put reminders on websites and tucked them in folders that go home with children.

"I think public awareness has become a factor in lowering it, but it is certainly not where we want it to be for sure," Langley said.

In Baltimore County, the school system has worked with police on public service announcements, as well as relocating bus stops to safer places where cars can see the buses from farther away. The county bus drivers also ask police to patrol areas where they observe a lot of violations.

"We have worked hard to communicate and educate the public on the importance of school bus stop safety," said Jim Mitcherling, director of the school district's office of transportation.

No children have died in the state in the recent past because a driver failed to stop for a school bus.

"Maryland is fortunate in that our law does not have a name in honor of a deceased child," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state department of education. Both North Carolina and Iowa have recently rewritten legislation in honor of a child who died because of an accident.

Three years ago, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law that allowed counties to use cameras to try to catch offenders, but it did not adopt funding to pay for the cameras. Anne Arundel is one of the counties that decided to put cameras in all 70 buses it owns, and about 60 percent of the 600 contractor-owned buses have cameras, according to Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the county schools.

Drivers caught on camera face up to a $250 fine, depending on the local ordinance.

Some parents say they worry more about speeding in their school neighborhoods than drivers passing buses as they unload children.

"People speeding in a school zone. That is a big concern in our neighborhood," said Jeff Macris, an Anne Arundel County parent of five who is a member of the statewide parent engagement council.

He said he wasn't even aware that there was an issue with drivers passing stopped buses, although he is heartened to hear the violations are decreasing.

"The numbers surprise me. Never would I have thought the problem is that bad," he said.

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