Drivers in Montgomery County have received 825 citations this year for illegally passing school buses that were stopped to drop off and pick up children, according to data from buses equipped with enforcement cameras.
County officials described the violations as troubling because children could potentially be put in harm’s way as they head to and from school. The Montgomery County Council already has called for an increase in the $125 fine for such offenses, and some elected leaders have pushed for more public-education efforts.
“It’s good news that the cameras are working, but it’s really bad news that we have this many violations,” said Capt. Thomas Didone, director of the Montgomery police’s traffic division, who appeared before a joint council committee this week. He called the volume “unacceptable.”
The bus safety program, which began in January with cameras on 25 buses, aims to capture offenders in much the same way red-light and speed cameras do. Maryland law requires drivers in both directions to halt for stopped school buses with flashing lights and stop arms extended, except when they are on the opposite side of a divided roadway with a median or physical barrier.
Council President Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) said he was not surprised that the cameras have spotted drivers failing to stop for buses loading and unloading children, but he said that the number was higher than he expected. “It is extremely concerning and troubling to me,” Rice said. “I think we have to do a much better job of making sure we’re educating the public about how serious this is.”
Montgomery police said the county — Maryland’s largest by population — has issued far more citations through its bus-camera program than have several other jurisdictions, noting that the higher number could be related to differences in technology and traffic density, among other variables.
Frederick County, a rural jurisdiction with less than a quarter of Montgomery’s population and far fewer buses, has issued 18 citations since its program started in 2012, said Fred Punturiero, director of transportation for that county’s schools.
Montgomery officials began a public-awareness campaign about driver safety around buses in August, with public-service announcements, advertising, an educational video and social media messages. Police also discuss the issue at school and community meetings, Didone said.
“I think it’s striking that there are so many people who either don’t know what the rules are or who have chosen to take their own schedules as being more important than whether kids are crossing safely in front of school buses,” said council member Cherri Branson (D-Eastern County). “I guess I want to chalk it up to people being preoccupied and harried. I don’t want to think it is a lack of concern.”
The council recently urged that John P. Morrissey, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland, increase fines for such violations, sending him a resolution suggesting that he consider as much as the $250 maximum penalty allowed by state law.
Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) said he appreciated the progress made by the new program. Still, he said, “it’s disturbing how many violations there are, and we need to find a way to drive that number down so that it is truly rare and not something that happens frequently throughout the year.”
County figures show that $78,250 had been collected in fines for camera-recorded passing violations as of Aug. 1 and that 16 cases were scheduled for court. As of mid-October, five active court cases remain, Didone said.
Todd Watkins, director of transportation for Montgomery schools, said the district has sought to place the 25 cameras on bus routes where problems have been reported.
Watkins said he hoped that the new cameras would change behavior. “My goal is to put ourselves out of business so there are no violations to be caught,” he said.