By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun
11:20 AM EDT, October 25, 2012
Automated speed cameras, installed around area schools three years ago with the goal of punishing dangerous drivers and making the streets safer for children, have caught hundreds of school buses speeding near the schools they serve, often with children aboard, a Baltimore Sun analysis has found.
Privately owned buses have received at least 800 automated speed citations in Baltimore City, while city-owned buses have accumulated more than 50, records show. And Baltimore County public school buses have triggered speed cameras more than 100 times over the past two years.
The $40 tickets are issued only to vehicles recorded driving at least 12 mph over the speed limit. More than two dozen school buses were clocked 20 mph or more over the limit in the city, including one that hit 74 mph one afternoon in February on West Cold Spring Lane near the Poly-Western high school campus.
Protecting schoolchildren was a key justification when the General Assembly voted in 2009 to allow speed cameras statewide. In addition to highway work zones, the devices are permitted in designated "school zones," defined in the law as being within a half-mile radius of a school.
Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called the volume of school bus citations in the city "a very serious issue." Many city students who ride school buses — as opposed to taking mass transit or other means — have special needs or are in elementary school, which Clarke said heightens her concern.
"If we don't do something about the companies and the drivers picking up these tickets, we're not helping to prevent accidents," said Clarke, who chairs the City Council's education committee. "There will be accidents if these habits are not turned around."
Officials at both the city and the county school systems say it is unacceptable for buses to speed.
Both districts say they require their drivers — not taxpayers — to pay the citations, and ticketed drivers face a graduated series of disciplinary measures.
But the city school system's own records show that officials have an uncertain grasp on the issue. For example, a Jeep Liberty registered to the city schools' police program has accumulated 28 speed camera tickets in the city and Baltimore County, records show. Yet the school system said this week it has a record of just 15.
City school officials also acknowledge they have no way of knowing how many privately owned buses have gotten tickets while carrying public school students, because the companies aren't required to notify the district when their buses receive citations.
Using partial speed camera data provided by City Hall, The Sun identified 122 citations that were issued to privately owned buses that have each gotten five or more tickets. School district officials checked their records and found that 96 of the violations occurred with children on board.
Barber Transportation Inc.'s buses got 24 of those tickets. Company representative Veronica Robinson expressed surprise at the numbers, saying Barber monitors tickets its drivers receive. "Anything that goes beyond two, they're reprimanded and they lose their [bus] run," she said. The most that any driver has gotten was four, she said, and "he's no longer working here."
A Barber bus that has gotten 15 citations, at least eight while students were aboard, is a "spare bus and is driven by numerous drivers," Robinson said. On Jan. 13, a camera detected that bus going 57 mph in a 25 mph zone on Hillen Road, not far from Yorkwood Elementary School.
Rams Bus Service owner Karen Vora questioned school system figures showing four of her company's buses amassed a combined 25 speed camera tickets with students aboard (and five more with none aboard). Asked about the tickets, she said none of her drivers have gotten more than two, and she said her six or seven current drivers rotate driving duties among the buses.
Any speed camera ticket is unacceptable, Vora said: "Whether there are kids or not, they should not be speeding — that's the bottom line."
Representatives of several other companies whose buses got tickets declined to comment or did not return calls.
In a statement to The Sun, the city school system said it will begin requiring contractors to report speed camera tickets, at least when a driver gets more than one. As school bus contracts are renewed, "we will be asking that they monitor and respond swiftly and appropriately to speeding by their drivers and that they inform our transportation office of drivers who have received multiple citations."
The absence of such a reporting requirement alarms the Parent and Community Advisory Board, a city schools' parent organization.
"The contractual agreement between City Schools and the private bus companies should include an agreement to report on speed camera tickets," the board said in a statement. "We urge City Schools to expedite the process of inclusion of this reporting in these agreements for the safety of all involved, especially our children."
"We are quite concerned as our children receiving bus service are typically the city's most vulnerable student populations," the statement added.
A camera overlooking a stretch of Greenspring Avenue near Kennedy Krieger High School, which serves special education students, has recorded 57 school buses speeding, most in the city. Tops in Baltimore County was the camera at 3800 Washington Ave., site of Milford Mill Academy, with 22.
The city and Baltimore County have the largest speed camera programs in the region. Howard County has a smaller program, with two cameras, while Carroll, Harford and Anne Arundel counties don't have automated speed camera devices. Unlike the city and the county, Howard refused to provide citation data containing license tag numbers, claiming that state law forbids it.
"Student safety is paramount and the district's position is that speeding is not acceptable under any circumstance," the city school district said in its statement, issued by spokeswoman Edie House-Foster. "Our expectation is that vendors take traffic violations in school zones with utmost seriousness."
City school officials said buses contracted or owned by the system made more than 800 trips a day last year, logging some 23,000 miles each day.
All district employees are required to pay traffic tickets and to show proof to their supervisors. Yet in "limited instances," officials say, the system has had to pay tickets incurred by workers whose employment ended with tickets unpaid. The district paid Baltimore County $280 to satisfy seven tickets that one employee got while driving the school police Jeep Liberty on Putty Hill Avenue.
As of last month, the district said it had 67 unpaid tickets, a figure that encompasses all system-owned vehicles and not just buses.
In Baltimore County, records show county buses have gotten at least 117 speed camera tickets. School board president Lawrence Schmidt said he was unaware of that.
"Obviously the Board of Education doesn't want our bus drivers speeding, whether they have children or don't have children," he said.
He said the number of tickets should be viewed in the context of how many miles county school buses travel. According to the district, its buses log 1,933 trips a day covering 80,294 miles.
Schools spokesman Charles Herndon said drivers who violate traffic laws are subject to a "progressive scale of disciplinary measures," though he did not know whether or how often those have been used.
"One ticket is too many," he said, adding, "Any time a driver receives a citation is a cause for concern and for us to take it seriously."
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