The annual HCPSS bus skills “roadeo” at Reservoir High School in Fulton, MD on Wednesday, August 3, 2016. Video by Jen Rynda/ Baltimore Sun Media Group
Move over, air conditioning. For all the concerns expressed in recent days over too-hot classrooms in Baltimore County when temperatures soar to 90 degrees and above, students may face a bigger safety threat from motorists who fail to stop for school buses loading and unloading children on county streets, roads and byways.
Every year, Maryland's school bus drivers spend a day recording the number of times motorists pass them when they are stopped with their lights flashing and stop signs extended. The latest survey results show Baltimore County public school bus drivers recorded 1,002 incidents of such illegal behavior on a single day. That was the highest number reported by any Maryland school system, outpacing the two largest, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. It was a significant uptick from last year when just 269 such violations were observed in Baltimore County, a nearly four-fold increase in one year's time.
And while Baltimore County bus drivers observed the biggest increase, many other school systems saw more vehicles speeding past buses as well. Overall, the number of observed violations rose from 2,795 last year to 4,326 on a single day in April. That follows what had been largely a pattern of yearly decline — falling from the record 7,011 observed five years ago.
What is happening? In most cases, experts say, it's a deliberate attempt by commuters to avoid getting stuck behind school buses picking up or dropping off children. It could scarcely be unintentional, given that the bright yellow buses aren't exactly difficult to observe when their red and yellow lights are flashing and stop signs extended. And it seems equally unlikely that motorists are wholly unaware of their legal obligation to stop.
But there may be at least two aggravating circumstances. The first is that traffic volumes have increased, meaning more vehicles are on the road more often. That's a national trend and likely a product of increased economic activity and low fuel prices. It's also thought to be a factor in a 7.2 percent increase in highway fatalities last year, according to the latest National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.
That rather large jump in fatalities is alarming (it's the highest one-year increase since 1966) because that, too, bucks the overall trend, which has been a decline in deadly crashes.
The other factor may be a lack of enforcement. Police issue tickets to motorists who illegally pass stopped school buses infrequently, and a statewide program to encourage greater enforcement efforts wasn't funded last year. Recently, however, Gov. Larry Hogan announced his office would be releasing $500,000 to local police departments for school bus safety enforcement in "hot spots," which advocates hope will help.
Still, it's clear that many Marylanders haven't taken the problem seriously. Statistically, school buses remain one of the safest forms of transportation. Nationwide, children suffer about 17,000 school bus related injuries each year, but fatalities are rare — about 61 school passenger deaths between 2005 and 2014, according to NHTSA. About 119 pedestrians age 18 or younger died in a 10-year period from accidents stemming from school transportation, the agency reports.
In Baltimore County, it isn't just school bus drivers who are witnessing the problem. School-bus-involved crashes have become more commonplace, too. The Baltimore County Police Department reports that the number of such incidents has risen from 180 in 2011 to 255 last year, a 42 percent increase in just four years.
There is one possible solution that ought to be explored — installing exterior cameras on school buses to catch motorists who break the law. In Montgomery County, the school board has agreed to allow a Dallas-based vendor, Force Multiplier Solutions, to install and monitor such devices on its entire 1,287-bus fleet after experimenting with 25. The program will cost the county nothing, as it's paid for by the revenue from the many $125 traffic citations the cameras are bound to generate.
That's certain to be controversial — much as using cameras to penalize speeders and red-light runners has been in the past (particularly when operated by for-profit companies). But it's also bound to reduce irresponsible behavior. Motorists who don't want to pay a fine need only obey the law and protect students in the process. Better for school systems to take such defensive action now than adopt a similar response after one or more student fatalities.