Md. school bus safety — still not a passing grade

Since October 2016, hundreds of school buses in Montgomery County have been outfitted with driver’s side cameras to detect motorists who illegally pass a bus that has stopped to pick up or discharge students and to allow authorities to ticket them. Motorists were given advanced warning that — like speed and red-light cameras — the citations were coming. The fine was even raised from $125 per violation to $250 to deter drivers. So how many tickets did the onboard cameras generate in their first two years? Hundreds? Several thousand? More?

The answer as of last week is 56,000. That’s enough to provide one for every single seat in Oriole Park at Camden Yards with enough left over to do the same at Towson University’s SECU Arena — twice. At one time, the county was averaging 13 tickets per bus per month. That meant rarely did a week go by when those school buses were not being passed multiple times while they had their lights flashing and stop signs extended. And roughly half of the county’s bus fleet are not even equipped with the enforcement cameras. Had they been similarly outfitted, the two-year total might be 100,000 or more.

Those results are congruent with the Maryland State Department of Education’s annual survey in which they ask school bus drivers to voluntarily report — for just one day — incidents of illegal passing. The latest results can only be described as disappointing. On one day last April, the drivers witnessed 3,812 violations. And again, that’s not even all the school buses across the state, only a sample (anywhere from 28 percent to 100 percent of a county’s fleet participated, depending on the system).

Even more worrisome is the fact that the total is higher than last year’s 3,384. While the measurement is certainly imperfect (participation varies from year to year and doesn’t take into account such factors as weather or traffic disruptions), it strongly suggests that the problem isn’t getting any better. And it confirms what local police are seeing in Montgomery County where buses may not longer average 13 violations per month, but they’re still getting more than four each month.

Admittedly, school buses remain a relatively safe form of transportation — safer, statistically, than riding in a car to and from school by a factor of 70, according to safety experts. But across the United States, the number of students injured or killed each year in school bus-related crashes has not declined by much even in years when overall highway deaths have. According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration analysis, the number of school bus-involved fatalities is averaging about 134 annually with the majority losing their lives walking to or from the bus, not while riding as passengers.

That so many drivers can’t be bothered to stop for a school bus is nothing short of outrageous. Some blame it on distracted drivers. Others on a lack of enforcement. (Montgomery’s bus camera system is the only one of its kind in the state.) But what police say they hear most often from violators is that they didn’t realize they had to stop. This is particularly true in multi-lane roads where, unless the lanes going in opposite directions are “physically divided,” oncoming vehicles still must stop for a stopped school bus — even one several lanes away. The rules are clear enough in driver training manuals but apparently aren’t well retained by licensees.

Why aren’t more counties following Montgomery’s lead? Part of the problem may be that Montgomery owns its school buses while most counties contract theirs from private companies. That circumstance made it much easier for the county to subcontract a vendor to install and operate the cameras at no cost. Citation revenue pays for the company’s services. Still, there’s room for other jurisdictions to become more aggressive about both driver education and police enforcement. Strictly by the numbers, Prince George’s, Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard ought to be first in line as they have the most reported violations — which is not surprising given they are also the largest counties.

That’s not to ignore the importance of better educating drivers and students, too. The annual in-depth report of student loading and unloading conducted by the Kansas State Department of Education has found that fatalities are most common on city streets — usually in daylight and dry conditions. That suggests it’s not weather or speed or line of sight but human judgment that is failing. That can be corrected — whether by public instruction or enforcement — but not by ignoring the problem.

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