School buses have several pieces of equipment to warn drivers they are slowing down and stopping to let children off and on, and Harford County bus operators may soon have a powerful tool to help catch those who fail to heed all the visual warnings.
Harford County Executive David Craig is the sponsor of legislation that will be introduced before the county council Tuesday night; it will require cameras to be placed on the exterior of school buses to record drivers who do not yield to a stopped school bus.
A county school official said the cameras on the buses will work similar to red light and speed enforcement cameras, recording the violation then generating a traffic citation that will be sent to the owner of the offending vehicle.
"Safety is from the time they [students] leave [home] until the time they get back," Craig said Thursday.
Craig said he is bringing the legislation to the council on behalf of the Harford County Board of Education and the Harford County Sheriff's Office.
"If we ensure that the drivers are driving near a bus driver safely, it just makes it better for all our children and grandchildren," he said.
School buses are equipped with red flashing lights, red stop signs that extend from the bus when children get off and on, as well as a crossing arm to protect children crossing a road in front of the bus.
Drivers, whether they are behind or in front of a stopped school bus, must stop while the lights are flashing and the stop arm is extended and remain stopped until all have been disengaged.
"Having a camera on there to be able to show that someone passed a legally stopped bus to pick up children can be important," Craig noted.
"That legislation is being introduced because of complaints from school bus drivers," Sheriff Jesse Bane said, adding that county officials expect placing cameras on buses "is probably going to be the answer" to the problem of drivers failing to obey the law.
A public hearing will be held on the legislation in early October and Bane said he plans to testify in favor it.
The Harford County School Bus Contractors Association, which represents 40 Harford County-based bus contracting companies, also supports the legislation.
Steve Nelson, president of the association, said drivers passing stopped buses "is a recurring problem."
He said the number of passes varies daily, but "one is too many."
"We're in favor of anything that increases the safety for the kids, and there is a problem with the motorists running the bus lights," Nelson explained.
More than 35,000 of the nearly 38,000 Harford County Public Schools students ride about 500 buses each day, according to the school system's website. The 2014-2015 school year began Monday.
"The HCSO asks drivers to have patience and allow for extra travel time," Cristie Kahler, spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, said in an email. "The school year brings more cars and buses to the roadways as well as children walking and biking to school."
Joe Licata, the school system's chief of administration, said school safety and transportation officials have been working with the Sheriff's Office for about a year on the camera program.
"We're in full support of it," he said. "We've been working with them since the beginning, and we're looking forward to making it work."
Licata said the camera technology used for the buses would be similar to technology used for red-light cameras to record violators, and the vendor selected for the program would bear the costs of installation and maintenance, and receive a portion of the revenue from fines.
"Its kind of a self-funding program," he explained.
Other than inside the Town of Bel Air, stationary red light cameras have never been deployed in Harford County. Neither the county nor any of the three local municipal governments has ever authorized the use of speed enforcement cameras.
Bane stressed the school bus cameras are not part of a red light camera program, even though the cameras are designed to take a photo of the license plate of a vehicle that passes a bus, and a citation is sent to the violator.
"It's something that we're looking to put into place to control driver behavior in the most economically feasible way possible," he said.
Frederick County officials approved cameras for buses in 2012, the first in Maryland to approve them, according to news reports.
Bane said a portion of the revenue from fines will go to the vendor, and the other portion will go to a dedicated county fund for school safety and children's traffic safety programs.