School bus cameras still worth pursuing [Editorial]

For when drivers don't stop for school buses.

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler's decision to delay installing cameras on school buses, as part of an effort to stop drivers who illegally go by when the bus' red lights are flashing at a stop to pick up students, isn't likely to end up being a big deal.

Unless a driver zipping past a school bus dropping off or picking up kids happens to hit one of those students.

Gahler, a Republican, says he wants to fully evaluate a proposal made by his Democratic predecessor (and approved by the Republican-dominated County Council) to install such cameras. The plan had been to have cameras installed during the 2014-15 school year, and the County Council reviewed the proposal in an expedited fashion to make such a timetable reasonable.

It is understandable that a new sheriff would want to review policies enacted late in a predecessor's term and to possibly even change them.

Gahler's recent decision to put an end to the Sheriff's Office's new single-helicopter aviation unit, however, casts his decision to delay the school bus camera effort in a different light.

It remains unclear whether the aviation unit was worth having. Former sheriff Jesse Bane pointed out, correctly, that the helicopter had been received for free, as federal government surplus. Gahler pointed out, both during the ensuing election last November when he defeated Bane and again this month when he decided to eliminate the unit, that operating and maintaining a helicopter is not free.

Unfortunately, the relative effectiveness of the unit measured against the real cost of operating it – especially considering no staff positions were cut and the people who had been assigned to the aviation unit also had other responsibilities – was not really spelled out by Gahler. In other words, a case could be made the aviation unit was eliminated by Gahler largely because it had been started by Bane.

That's fine for something like a helicopter unit, especially considering the Maryland State Police have helicopter units that can be called into Harford County. The school bus situation is another matter entirely.

While mounting traffic cameras on buses may not be the solution, there is a real problem with drivers ignoring school buses that have stopped to drop off or pick up children. School system officials, individual bus drivers and police all have been more than willing to call attention to the problem, as many did when the camera legislation was approved last year. Short of giving each school bus a police escort, few effective ways of dealing with the problem have been suggested.

When the camera idea came up, therefore, it seemed well worth trying, especially with the negligible price tag associated with it, since vendors expressed a willingness to install the cameras and collect the fines for violations.

The Sheriff's Office reasoning for delaying is to allow for an evaluation of the technologies being offered by the various potential vendors and the finances involved.

It's reasonable to take a look, but it would be terrible if a tragedy, that could have been prevented by the installation of cameras on school buses, ended up happening because of the delay that seems likely to extend beyond another school year, if not longer.

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