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CCPS, sheriff propose cameras for helping catch drivers who blow past stopped school buses

Drivers illegally blow past stopped school buses with lights flashing something like 125 times per day, according to a nine-year average of survey day counts by bus drivers.

The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office and Carroll County Public Schools came before the Board of County Commissioners on Thursday to propose adding more cameras to school buses in the hopes of catching more drivers who violate those laws.

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This is known as a “stop-arm violation,” referring to the piece of equipment that extends from the side of the bus to display a stop sign to drivers.

The Sheriff’s Office and CCPS would partner on the program and contract with a third-party vendor for the camera equipment and some of the responsibility of monitoring for violations. Sheriff Jim DeWees said fines from violators would pay for the equipment and it would add no costs to the county, CCPS or the Sheriff’s Office.

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If approved, the program could begin as soon as the 2020-21 school year. The county will advertise a public hearing where citizens can give their opinions.

The idea was brought before the Board of Education in December but requires county approval. School system and Sheriff’s Office representatives answered questions on specifics at Thursday’s meeting.

As it is now, law enforcement may write up moving violations when they witness a violation or when bus drivers are able to catch the license plate number of a violator and report it.

DeWees said he sees the cameras as a force multiplier to address a violation “that we know will cost a life” if left unchecked.

The proposed program in Carroll is based on similar programs in other counties around Maryland, including Washington, Anne Arundel and St. Mary’s.

The vendor uses camera footage to identify what seems to be a violation. Then the footage is sent to trained Sheriff’s Office deputies to double-check. The final step if the deputy agrees that a violation occurred is to send the civil violation to district court, where it can be challenged if the person wishes. If a court date is set, the deputy who verified the violation will be called to testify.

Civil violations do not lead to points on a person’s driving record. The civil violation is sent to the registered owner of the car, which might not necessarily be the driver.

DeWees said he wanted to make sure the public was aware there is a process to check the violations and make sure they are real. And there are checks to ensure deputies would not dismiss a legitimate violation committed by a friend or family member, he said.

The amount of money for the civil citation fine would have to be set if the program is approved.

The school system and the Sheriff’s Office are looking at several vendors for the cameras and service. They anticipate a five-year contract with a possibility to renew.

The company will install the equipment in buses at no upfront cost to Carroll, O’Neal said. But the revenue from fines will go to reimbursing the company for this equipment and installation. If that is payed off, O’Neal said, there is the possibility for some revenue share between the company and Carroll, with specifics depending on the eventual contract.

“The people that run through the system are paying for it,” DeWees said in summary. He emphasized that this is an enforcement measure, not a cash cow for Carroll. Other Maryland counties with stop-arm cameras have seen a decline in the number of violations, he said.

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Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, asked how long footage would be stored.

Jonathan O’Neal, chief operating officer for CCPS, said most vendors have proposed that the data from the cameras is stored for 30 days then destroyed, unless it becomes part of a court case surrounding the violation.

Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, said he doesn’t oppose the program, bus asked whether the public might have “Big Brother” privacy concerns about the cameras.

O’Neal pointed out that there are already cameras on buses that can capture some area outside the bus. DeWees said that in previous cases of cameras on large trucks or buses, they felt that that matter had been worked through in the courts satisfactorily. There have been examples of bus camera footage becoming evidence in a law enforcement investigation.

O’Neal said some might ask why this program wasn’t implemented earlier. One reason, he said, was CCPS watching the technology as it developed and looking to examples from other school systems. Another challenge was finding vendors willing to implement it with all 325 buses in the school system, not just a handful.

DeWees said that people often ask him why Carroll has few red-light cameras or speed traps. He doesn’t feel those systems are as effective because drivers quickly learn where the camera or speed trap is located. They slow down in one stretch of road to avoid a fine, but their behavior doesn’t change elsewhere, he said.

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, asked if there was a possibility the vendor could pull the contract if they weren’t making enough revenue from violators to cover costs. CCPS Superintendent Steve Lockard and O’Neal said they wouldn’t agree to a contract that would allow a vendor to terminate before five years.

Wantz was skeptical that there would be a shortage of violators. “No one’s come up yet with a fix for stupid,” he said.

Lockard said, “Any number above zero is a concern for us.”

After the meeting Michael Hardesty, director of transportation for CCPS, said stop-arm violations mean that boarding or exiting the bus is statistically more dangerous than when students are actually riding the bus. He is in favor of the program.

“I think it’s a tremendous thing for the safety of our students,” he said, “and I’m looking forward to it.”

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