Stop signs for school buses

For most people living in Maryland, Feb. 9 was a fairly ho-hum Wednesday. Del. Curt Anderson quit the tea party; in College Park, Gary Williams surpassed the late John Wooden for career basketball coaching wins; and the latest test scores showed Maryland students doing well in high school advanced placement tests.

But for Maryland school bus drivers, the day was somewhat more notable. Asked to keep track of all the motorists who passed them illegally — that is, while they were stopped with flashers blinking, stop sign arm extended and picking up or dropping off children — on that one particular day (or Feb. 10, if it was a snow day), they produced a jaw-dropping result.

Go ahead, take a guess. Maybe they saw a dozen scofflaws? Maybe a hundred? Five hundred?

Not even close. The numbers are still being crunched as of this writing, but so far they add up to more than 6,300 incidents in a single day.

That's stunning. But officials at the Maryland State Department of Education say they are not particularly surprised by their survey's preliminary results. They've been hearing about such behavior for years.

What's remarkable is that none of the 615,000 Maryland public school students who ride the familiar big yellow bus each day were seriously injured as a result of such behavior. Indeed, school buses are regarded as one of the safest forms of transportation available, with the odds of an accident far below those facing the average vehicle on the road.

But accidents do happen. A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics estimated about 4,000 injuries nationwide involving schoolchildren boarding, exiting or approaching a school bus over a three-year period ending in 2003. Each year, an average of 19 children are killed getting on or off school buses, according to a recent estimate by the National Research Council. Clearly, the odds increase when drivers ignore the law.

Making matters worse still, the problem appears to be highly concentrated. In the Maryland survey, rural counties had few, if any, incidents to report. In the Eastern Shore's Caroline County, for instance, not one bus driver reported seeing a vehicle pass his or her bus illegally.

But in suburban counties like Baltimore County, the jurisdiction with the most reported incidents, the story was quite different. Drivers there reported at least 1,700 cases of vehicles passing a stopped bus with lights flashing. That adds up to about three incidents for every bus involved in the survey.

School systems and local police departments have been fighting the problem for years. Bus drivers are asked to jot down the license plate of offenders, but that results in no more than a warning letter. Police generally have more urgent obligations than to stake out bus stops.

Legislation introduced by Del. Patrick N. Hogan of Frederick County would authorize local school boards and police agencies to install monitoring cameras on school buses. Owners of vehicles seen violating the law would receive a $100 fine. That's far less than the maximum $1,000 fine and 3 points on a driver's license that can result when police enforce the law, but it is consistent with how the state has treated enforcement by speed and red-light cameras.

Whether support for another camera-related form of traffic law enforcement can be mustered remains to be seen. But it's notable that Mr. Hogan is a Republican, and members of his party have generally opposed the use of cameras to enforce the law.

But then, failing to stop for a school bus picking up or dropping off children is a flagrant violation with potentially frightening consequences. As speed cameras have demonstrated, once motorists realize that someone is watching, they are more likely to comply with the law. School buses — and schoolchildren — deserve that added protection.

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