This week, youngsters across Maryland will board the "big yellow cheese wagon," as it's sometimes called, and head back to school. And chances are high (aside perhaps from those teary-eyed moms and dads waving good-bye to their kindergartners for the first time), the school bus commute from home to classroom will take place without incident.
But the latest survey conducted by the Maryland State Department of Education shows that the students' fate is being tempted on a regular basis by drivers who seem either unaware of the law or unwilling to follow it. Drivers are forbidden to pass a bus in either direction when its stop arm swings out and its lights are flashing, yet that happens all the time.
How often? Based on voluntary reporting by bus drivers in all 24 Maryland school jurisdictions, a typical day involves thousands of violations. Specifically, the survey conducted last April 24 cited 3,505 such incidents as reported by 72 percent of all school bus drivers statewide. That means that in all likelihood, the actual number of violations was probably closer to 5,000.
That's a big number, particularly given that this was just an ordinary Thursday in the spring. Multiply that across a 180-day school calendar and you have something in the order of 900,000 opportunities for a serious accident to take place between now and next June.
Statistically, the school bus remains by far the safest way to transport children to school (roughly 20 times safer than being driven by an adult, according to one estimate), but that doesn't mean accidents involving students who take the bus to school don't happen. Between 2000 and 2011, an average of 139 people died each year in school transportation-related accidents in the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports.
Most of those killed in bus-related crashes were either occupants of the other vehicle or pedestrians. Indeed, one of the most worrisome possibilities is that a student will be struck walking or running to or from a stopped bus. And a number of states have in recent years increased the fines for passing stopped school buses.
In Maryland, there have been numerous efforts to educate students (and motorists) about the danger, and a few subdivisions have stepped up enforcement efforts. Frederick County, for instance, has seen a significant drop in violations — from 238 in the survey of 2012 to 39 this year — after installing onboard cameras to capture scofflaws, much as tickets produced by properly-operated speed-detecting and red-light cameras have made roads safer as well.
But such cameras mounted on the exterior of school buses have not yet become widespread, and that might explain why the annual survey actually produced slightly more violations (3,505) this year than last (3,392). Clearly, education is not enough.
The largest number of violations took place in the state's largest jurisdictions with Montgomery, Prince George's, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and Baltimore City accounting for 2,784 — or nearly 80 percent of the problem. Some rural counties reported none, and some, like Howard with 41 violations, did well compared to peers. (Carroll reported 112 with only 83 percent of drivers participating in the survey compared to 100 percent participation in Howard, which also has a student enrollment that is almost twice as large.)
It makes little sense for police to devote their work hours to following school buses around all day looking to write tickets, but it's also unacceptable for stopped school buses to be passed by motorists 900,000 times a year. If drivers won't respect the law voluntarily then automated onboard cameras would seem to be the only viable solution.
As for Maryland's drivers, they ought to be ashamed. Studies suggest the average school bus stop lasts all of 31 seconds, hardly a major imposition to anyone's morning or afternoon commute. Yet last year, Maryland's 7,000 school buses were involved in 560 incidents, mostly minor fender benders, relatively few involving injury and none producing a fatality. But that could change in a matter of seconds — just one distracted student failing to see one hurried driver, an opportunity that beginning today will arise 5,000 times daily.