Montgomery County mailed tens of thousands of tickets to drivers last year for illegally passing school buses, while police in Anne Arundel County — with about half the population — issued only 98 such tickets.
The stark disparity can be explained by the specialized camera mounted to school buses serving the D.C. suburb. The cameras automatically generate tickets, similar to red light traffic cameras, which are reviewed by police and sent to drivers.
No Baltimore-area schools districts use school bus cameras, but school officials from Baltimore City, and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, and Howard counties said they are considering adding them to crack down on drivers illegally blowing past school buses stopped to load and unload students.
“Baltimore City Public Schools takes seriously the safety of our transportation services for our students, and we are continuing to explore options to help address this issue, including the possibility of putting cameras on school buses,” wrote Abby Lane, a school district, spokesperson for the school district, an email to The Baltimore Sun.
Maryland law requires drivers to stop in both directions for any school bus with its lights on and stop sign extended, unless there is a physical median divider.
In August, Montgomery County police published several alarming videos showing a student getting hit and thrown into the air by a passing car and several other near misses.
Aside from that risk, the price for those who do not bother to stop is steep. The fine for a violation observed by police is $570 and $250 for a camera-generated ticket.
While Montgomery County’s cameras issued more than 54,000 tickets last year, other jurisdictions — relying on police observing violations — issued far fewer.
Carroll County deputy sheriffs stopped 17 vehicles for school bus violations during the last school year, and Harford County deputy sheriffs issued just 229 citations over the last five years.
Baltimore police still issue paper tickets and do not to track the school bus violations. Baltimore County police do not track driver violations and instead work with an electronic citation system managed by Maryland State Police. State police data show Baltimore County police issued seven warnings and no citations last year.
Baltimore County Councilman David Marks said he was “disappointed” the police did not track such statistics, noting that transportation safety makes up more than half of the concerns he gets from constituents.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler decided against a school bus camera proposal in 2016. Harford deputies began a special enforcement operation this year in which they and other local police officers ride certain school buses to look for drivers passing illegally.
To get a snapshot of drivers’ adherence to school bus laws, the Maryland State Department of Education organizes one-day surveys of illegal driving each April. The numbers are not statistically representative of the actual violations because school bus drivers participate in the survey voluntarily and at different rates across the state, but the survey reveals a significant number of violations observed by bus drivers.
In 2019, there were 178 violations observed by Baltimore City school bus drivers in a single day. Baltimore County school bus drivers recorded 379 violations. Anne Arundel’s bus drivers witnessed 471 violations. Carroll County’s drivers observed 113 violations. Harford County’s drivers saw 125 violations. Howard County’s bus drivers saw 232 violations. Across the state, there were 3,194 violations on just one day reported by 5,202 bus drivers.
“Regardless of how many of our bus drivers completed the survey, the data is very concerning,” said Brandon Oland, a spokesperson for the Baltimore County school district. “If a stop sign is extended on a school bus and red lights are flashing, students are likely nearby and could be crossing the street. We ask all motorists to look up and look out for our nearly 115,000 students as they travel to and from school.”
The Evening Sun
School buses are the safest form of vehicle transportation for school children, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
There were 1,241 people killed in school-transportation-related crashes — an average of 124 fatalities per year between 2008 and 2017, according to the administration, but occupants of school transportation vehicles accounted for just 10% of the fatalities. People in other vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists accounted for the rest.
Maryland and fifteen other states have laws allowing school bus cameras, said Ragina Cooper Ali, a spokeswoman for AAA.
“It is too early to tell whether they are having an impact on safety,” said Cooper, noting the thousands of citations in Montgomery County despite the cameras. “Even with school bus stop arm cameras, drivers continue to engage in dangerous behavior."
Ali thinks that with time, drivers’ behavior could change as they become more aware of the cameras.
“It may be like traffic cameras, where drivers slow down when they know the cameras are recording,” she said.
Reporters Erika Butler with The Aegis and Jess Nocera with Howard County Times contributed to this story.