If Maryland motorists demonstrate too little respect for school bus safety, then drivers in Baltimore County are practically off the charts. Unfortunately, there's not much sign of that worrisome attitude changing any time soon.
That's because the Baltimore County Police Department has decided not to take advantage of a new law allowing jurisdictions to install cameras on school buses in order to ticket vehicles that illegally pass stop buses. According to his spokeswoman, Chief James W. Johnson believes it's a matter best left to precinct-level enforcement.
No doubt there are other counties that aren't investing in the technology either, but Baltimore County's disinterest is particularly notable given the findings of a Maryland State Department of Education survey conducted last winter. In that survey, bus drivers were asked to keep track of how many vehicles illegally pass them when they are stopped and have their lights flashing.
Some counties had just a handful. Larger subdivisions generally had more. But none reported more such incidents in a single day than bus drivers in Baltimore County, who racked up 1,723 violations — more than one-third of all the incidents reported statewide.
That should be more than an embarrassment to the folks in Towson, it should be alarming. After the study came out earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly authorized local law enforcement agencies, in coordination with school boards, to install cameras on buses. Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the measure into law and it went into effect this week.
Without those cameras, the chances of perpetrators getting caught are relatively small. Police are hardly in a position to follow around buses all day, and that isn't a particularly effective way to catch violations anyway. Indeed, by Chief Johnson's own accounting, Baltimore County Police issued just 121 citations for the offense last year despite investing 533 hours of enforcement. Routine speed traps generally produce twice as many tickets per hour of effort.
Why such a modest payoff? Probably because the average motorist looking to pass a stopped school bus looks around to see if anyone else is watching, especially a police officer.
But that amount of caution doesn't make such a maneuver safe. A 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found during a recent two-year period, there were about 4,000 injuries involving children boarding, exiting or approaching a school bus. Each year, nearly 20 children are killed, on average, getting off or on school buses, according to the National Research Council.
School buses are not childhood's great hazard, of course. They remain a much safer form of transportation than the family sedan. But it does suggest there is room for improvement in their safety record, and one would think that the county where drivers logged 1,700 violations in just one day would be the place for aggressive enforcement.
County police counter that bus drivers are encouraged to report violations on their own (there were a scant 46 of them reported between Oct. 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011). But one has to wonder whether drivers have much faith that they'll get anywhere by reporting violations that, according to the MSDE survey, are such common daily occurrences.
So why not just install a few cameras as a pilot project and see what happens? It could be that Chief Johnson or others in county government believe they've taken enough heat for speed cameras installed in school zones. Or, it could be the expense. MSDE estimates the cost at $2,300 per bus — or over $1 million for an entire fleet in a large county.
Still, the county should at least investigate the feasibility of camera enforcement that might free traffic officers for other duties and avert a serious injury or death of a child. It shouldn't take a tragedy for Chief Johnson or County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to take notice of a problem that was identified so clearly by Baltimore County's own school bus drivers.