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School bus stop violations have declined, but safety still a concern

School bus stop violations have declined, but safety still a concern
The safety signals on every bus are checked during summer school bus inspections in the parking lot of Winters Mill High School in Westminster Tuesday, August 13, 2013. (DYLAN SLAGLESTAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

Drivers can expect to see more school buses on the roads once the new academic year is underway, and that is why school officials in Carroll County are urging drivers to remember to stop for when students are being picked up and dropped off.

"Once the student gets on the bus, statistically they couldn't be any safer," said Mike Hardesty, director of transportation for Carroll County Public Schools. "But when they get on and off the bus, that is when it becomes unsafe."

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A survey released by the Maryland State Department of Education found 101 school bus stop-arm violations on a single day in Carroll County in 2015, a decrease from 112 counted on a single day in 2014 and the lowest since the survey began in 2011. The survey, considered to be a snapshot of illegal activity, was coordinated by MSDE and transportation directors in all 23 Maryland counties and Baltimore City.

School bus drivers were asked to count the number of violations they witnessed on one day in the spring.

"It is a valid survey for the date and time that they do it and I think it's indicative of the problem," Hardesty said.

A total of 2,796 violations were reported by bus drivers in the spring, a decrease from 3,505 violations in the same period in the previous year.

"Maryland schools are opening, and we ask that all drivers focus on the safety of our students. It is illegal to pass a bus with its stop-arm extended and its lights flashing," State Superintendent of Schools Lillian M. Lowery said in a prepared statement. "We celebrate the progress that has been made since our bus drivers first launched this survey five years ago. But we have more work to do for the safety of our students."

Hardesty said Carroll hasn't had many instances involving students being injured, but a West Middle School student was struck in 2006 by a car that failed to stop on Deer Park Road, he said.

"Fortunately they survived," Hardesty said, adding that parents should tell their children to be vigilant when crossing the street. "They need to impress upon their children to watch for traffic; children need to understand that those [flashing] lights are a false sense of security because they're only as good as the driver obeying them."

Hardesty also said the school system works closely with local law enforcement to ensure students make their way safely to and from school.

Law enforcement agencies in Carroll were recently the recipients of School Bus Safety Enforcement Grants, which were issued by the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention and are to be used for programs that target drivers who don't stop for school buses when required.

The Sykesville Police Department, the Westminster Police Department, the Hampstead Police Department, the Maryland State Police's Westminster Barrack and the Carroll County Sheriff's Office received funding.

Law enforcement agencies say they will have an additional presence out during the first week of school.

"We have obtained a school bus grant for overtime patrols and we will have extra duty officers out patrolling bus stops looking for violations on the first week of school and throughout the year," said Cpt. Misty Budzinski, bureau commander for field services for the Westminster Police Department.

Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees said his department will have nonpatrol officers and investigators at schools on the first day to minimize any potential incidents. DeWees said Sheriff's Office deputies rarely issue citations, because people in the county usually abide by the law.

DeWees said there has been some confusion about whether vehicles should stop for a bus traveling in the opposite direction on a multilane highway such as Md. 140. He explained that vehicles must stop for a bus traveling in the opposite direction if there is no highway divider.

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DeWees had some advice for motorists on the first day of school: "For getting on and off the buses be aware that the school buses are going to be out there. Give yourself more time if you have to be out there to avoid the buses and stops. Give the buses room; be aware it's the first day of school — a kid may randomly sprint out from a bus, so please drive slowly on Monday and be aware throughout the school year."

Chief Michael Spaulding, of the Sykesville Police Department, said that although the agency doesn't issue many citations for vehicles that fail to stop, officers have heard complaints from the community about drivers failing to stop for school buses.

"We don't see many violations, but one would be too many when it involves striking a child with a vehicle," Spaulding said.

Sgt. Robert Swartz, of the Hampstead Police Department, said the department, which issues about 30 to 35 citations each year to drivers who fail to stop for school buses, found last year that many of the violations occur because drivers are talking on their cellphones.

Swartz said drivers should "stay off their cellphones and pay attention to driving," especially before and after school to prevent accidents from happening.

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School bus stop-arm violations:

2015: 101

2014: 112

2013: 113

2012: 115

2011: 160

Source: Maryland State Department of Education data

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