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Editorial
News Opinion Editorial

Big yellow warning lights

Imagine for a moment that you are in a hurry. It's 7:30 in the morning, and you're stuck in your car late for work on a two-lane suburban road behind a big yellow school bus that's stopping frequently to pick up kids. Might you be tempted to pass it even as its lights are flashing and the driver has the "stop" arm extended?

Probably not. But then perhaps you would. Just a few months ago, Maryland school bus drivers completed their annual one-day tally of drivers who dare to pass them as they are picking up youngsters. The results were mixed.

On the one hand, the survey revealed fewer Maryland drivers are passing stopped school buses — 3,392 violations were recorded compared to 4,657 last year and 7,011 in 2011. On the other, that still represents 3,392 incidents in a single day, and translated against a full school year that represents more 600,000 opportunities for accidents.

How much further those numbers will fall is debatable. School officials suspect the main reason for improvement is greater public awareness of the problem. The survey, which was first conducted two years ago, has generated significant publicity — as did the Maryland General Assembly's decision in 2011 to pass a law giving local governments the right to install cameras on school buses to record violations and ticket those who pass illegally.

School systems are sending reminders home, and so are local Parent Teacher Associations. But there's just so much more that can be achieved through brief articles in the newspaper or one-page fliers at the start of the new school year.

While some counties have stepped up enforcement — having officers observe locations where violations are most common and worrisome — the vast majority have not taken the additional step of using onboard cameras. That's unfortunate. The one county that has begun using cameras, Frederick, has seen a steep decline in violations reported under the survey from 238 last year to 24 this year.

That's not surprising. The point of issuing traffic tickets is to change driver behavior, not collect revenue for government (as much as some jurisdictions seem to forget that). And nothing quite reminds a person of the consequences of law-breaking like a hefty fine.

But that will require local governments and school systems to adopt such ordinances. State law permits fines of up to $250 per violation, but it doesn't need to be so steep. Frederick County has gotten by with a $125 penalty.

Some jurisdictions may still be reluctant to do so, of course. School buses remain one of the safest forms of transportation available, and serious accidents are rare. Over the last five years, Maryland has experienced just four children hit by vehicles near bus stops, according to the Maryland Department of Education.

But when accidents occur, the outcome can be horrific. Earlier this year, the North Carolina legislature passed the Hasani N. Wesley Students' School Bus Safety Act to stiffen the penalties for passing a stopped school bus. The law was named after the 11-year-old boy who was killed last December when he was struck by a motorist trying to pass a stopped bus. He was one of four schoolchildren who died under similar circumstances in North Carolina last year.

Other states have experienced such tragedies as well. In Iowa, "Kadyn's Law" is named after a 7-year-old killed at a school bus stop in 2012. More than 460 schoolchildren have been killed in school bus loading and unloading accidents since 1979.

Why wait to name a law in Maryland? It would be far better for local government — particularly those suburban counties where the problem has been most severe — to take greater enforcement steps now than wait for a poster child. Accidents may be rare, but the consequences are too severe not to take every available precaution.

Police officers usually have more pressing duties than to wait around bus stops. Cameras offer a more cost-effective alternative, yet it appears only two other counties, Montgomery and Washington, are moving forward with bus cameras. That needs to change.

As much as the public appetite for the enforcement of traffic laws by the use of cameras may be modest (and Baltimore's distasteful record with speed cameras ticketing stopped cars notwithstanding), schoolchildren deserve the added protection. That youngsters are killed only occasionally is hardly justification for not enforcing the law to the fullest.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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