Need for speed?

While there has been much talk from local school systems about keeping students safe, much of it focused on weapons brought to school, it appears one basic safety concern is frequently overlooked — making sure school bus drivers aren't speeding on nearby streets.

No doubt many parents were surprised to read of the recent investigation by The Sun's Scott Calvert that found more than 900 citations issued as the result of school buses caught speeding by automated speed cameras posted in front of schools. It's not too great a stretch to assume many of these scofflaws were speeding in front of the very schools they serve.

That's an unsafe situation for passengers on the bus, for other vehicles in the area, and for pedestrians. It's difficult to even fathom the idiocy involved. Were drivers unaware of cameras they pass every day? Keeping in mind that citations are issued only if vehicles are traveling at least 12 miles per hour above the posted speed limit, what exactly is the point of going so fast in a school bus anyway? If safety isn't the primary concern of a school bus driver, what is?

Here's the number that many readers probably have fixed in their minds — 74. That's the speed, in miles per hour, of one school bus caught by a camera on Cold Spring Lane near the Poly-Western high school complex. It is mind-boggling to imagine that there is a school bus driver who thinks going 40 mph or so above the speed limit is acceptable.

But that's not even the biggest concern raised by this investigation. It appears that Baltimore City (as well as Baltimore County, where a smaller number of school buses are contracted from private vendors) had no way of knowing whether its privately employed drivers had been caught by speed cameras — or red light cameras, for that matter.

Why? Chiefly because automated camera violations are treated differently from other transgressions. Under state law, it's the vehicle's owner that gets the citation. No points are ever assessed a driver. So it's been up to the contractors to identify the offending drivers internally. They likely have done so (if only to bill them for the tickets). Whether they have suspended or fired drivers who deserve it is not clear.

City school officials say they will now write into their school bus contracts a requirement that they be notified of any such infractions. That's a good, if overdue, idea. Officials are already made aware of more serious infractions, either through annual audits of bus driver records or notification from the Motor Vehicle Administration of license revocations or suspensions. Baltimore County should take similar action with its contractors, too.

How serious a safety risk are speeding school buses? Probably not at the top of the list of health hazards facing youngsters today. So far this school year, for instance, the city has recorded just one bus accident, and it didn't involve speeding; nor was it the bus driver's fault. And it didn't result in serious injury to the driver or passengers.

Still, it should have been something of an embarrassment to Baltimore City and Baltimore County to learn of hundreds of citations issued to school buses since 2009. The volume of tickets suggests drivers either aren't paying sufficient attention to what they're doing or believe there they can drive 12 mph or more above the speed limit without adverse consequence.

Neither explanation is acceptable. If a $40 ticket is not sufficient to deter speeding, perhaps school systems need to set tougher standards — an automatic suspension on the second such ticket might do the trick. And those caught going 25 mph above the speed limit probably ought to be shown the door on the first offense.

That may sound harsh, but speeding is still a serious offense. School buses remain one of the safest forms of transportation available, but driving them over the speed limit makes them less safe. An average of 19 school bus passengers are killed in crashes each year in the U.S., and an estimated one-third of all fatal crashes involve speeding, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Not everyone likes speed cameras, but they are effective in getting people to slow down. And it's appropriate for school bus drivers to be held to a high standard — their cargo is simply too precious for them to be treated otherwise.

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