Getting nearly 38,000 students to and from school safely each day is a top priority, and to make sure that happens, Harford County police will be stepping up enforcement of school bus traffic laws.
Beginning a few weeks after school starts next Tuesday, Harford County Sheriff’s Office deputies and other local police will be boarding school buses to look for drivers passing school buses illegally, the Sheriff’s Office announced Wednesday afternoon during a joint news conference with Harford County Public Schools at Harford Technical High School.
“When you think about who we are transporting, it makes it so important for us to continue to increase the vigilance and to constantly appeal to this community to make sure they’re taking it slow around the schools so that our students can be as safe as possible,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said.
Deputies will be riding school buses this year in areas where the bus drivers have reported high numbers of violations — some of the more troubled spots where drivers are regularly passing school buses with the red lights flashing and stop arms extended, said Col. William Davis, chief deputy of the Sheriff’s Office.
A deputy riding the bus will radio to a patrol car working in the area that is out of plain sight. The deputy on the bus will provide a license plate number and/or a vehicle description to the patrol deputy to issue the citation, Davis said.
If no patrol deputy is in the area, the deputy on the bus will get the license plate number and send a warning letter to the owner of the vehicle. A citation can’t be issued unless police are positive who the driver of the vehicle is, Davis said.
“We’re very serious about this,” he said. “This isn’t about citations, it’s about prevention and making people not pass buses.”
The Sheriff’s Office will use historical data and information from the beginning of the school year to determine what buses deputies will be riding.
Among the areas with repeat violations are South Tollgate Road in the Constant Friendship community in Abingdon, Brass Mill Road in Belcamp, most of the stretch of Conowingo Road north of Bel Air and along Route 22 from Bel Air to Aberdeen, said Senior Deputy Mark Pilachowski, of the Sheriff’s Office traffic unit.
Capt. Eric Gonzalez, supervisor of the sheriff’s special operations division, which includes the traffic unit. said problems arise on the county’s larger roads with houses along them that don’t have a median in the middle of the road.
Most vehicles that are passing stopped school buses with their red lights activated are on the opposite side of the road, traveling in the other direction, Gonzalez said. That’s is illegal in Maryland when there is no median.
People who are found to violate a the law by passing a bus when its red lights are activated will be issued either a warning or a citation. The citation is $570 and carries three points.
In the last five years, 229 citations have been issued to drivers passing school buses illegally, Davis said.
Deputies will also be looking for engineering flaws and line-of-sight issues, “things that might give people the idea that they think they’re allowed to pass a bus,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Office has periodically discussed putting cameras on the outside of buses to detect red light violators and it again looking at the possibility.
The cameras would be operated by a third-party vendor, and citations would be issued to violators, Davis said. But it also requires a deputy to review the cameras and to appear in court.
“It’s more than just issuing a citation by a third party vendor,” Davis said. “We want to make sure, if we get to the point where we put cameras on buses to issue citations, there’s a public safety reason for it, not monetary.”
That’s part of what the deputies on the buses will be doing — seeing how many violations there are and “how much of a real problem it is," Davis said.
“We work very hard to make sure our students are as safe as possible, but they can sometimes be unpredictable,” Bulson said. “So we rely on adults to demonstrate that patience, to slow down, particularly around schools, buses, bus stops, but particularly throughout the community, because while riding the bus is the safest form of transportation, there’s a lot we can do to make it even better.”