School buses are poised to become the latest front in the widening use of traffic enforcement cameras in Montgomery County, as officials look to crack down on motorists who fail to yield to students being picked up or dropped off.
County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) introduced legislation Tuesday that would allow police to use external cameras on many of the 1,264 county school buses to ticket offending drivers.
A majority of council members indicated Tuesday that they support the legislation; a public hearing is scheduled for January. County officials say the bill — like laws allowing speed cameras and red-light cameras in the county — will help police at a time when budgets are tight.
School buses are equipped with flashing lights and a stop arm to warn that children are boarding or exiting the bus. By law, other vehicles must stop when the lights are on and the stop arm is extended. But some drivers flout the rule, and police and school officials are trying to crack down.
Since the 1970s, cars passing a stopped school bus have killed more than 400 children nationwide, according to the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at North Carolina State University.
Sometimes, the violator can be identified by police or the school bus driver. The maximum penalty is a $1,000 fine and three points on the driver’s record. According to Maryland State Police data, 25 to 30 such tickets are issued in Montgomery each month.
But often, the offending driver can’t be identified, and in such cases, authorities can only issue a warning letter to the vehicle’s owner. If Ervin’s bill becomes law, the cameras would record the license plates of vehicles passing the stop arm, and their owners would receive a ticket in the mail. The maximum fine would be $250 for the owner, and no points would be added to the owner’s record.
The cameras record whenever the ignition is on, and school officials say the footage can be used for training purposes. But they do not intend to use the cameras to monitor other traffic violations and would need additional legislation to use the video to ticket people for other traffic violations.
“Next to drunk driving and reckless driving, it is one of the top five most-serious violations in our roadways,” said Capt. Thomas C. Didone, who runs the Montgomery police traffic division. “We don’t have enough law enforcement resources to effectively conduct enforcement, so I think it’s very wise and prudent that they are giving us the opportunity to use technology to improve safety.”
The cost of the program remains unclear.
Montgomery is not the only county in the area that is pursuing such legislation. So is Frederick, whose officials led efforts to push state legislators to pass a law in April that allows local jurisdictions to install the cameras.
Montgomery County has more than 1,100 police officers, but it does not have any officers assigned full time to school bus safety enforcement, Didone said. State grants funded such Montgomery initiatives in the past, but the money has dried up, he said.
Montgomery has tested the external cameras since 2009, monitoring vehicular movement to the left of the bus when its ignition is on. Warning letters were issued to the owners of violating vehicles, he said. It costs about $3,500 per bus to install equipment used in the test.
The state law was also a reaction to a traffic study released in March by the Maryland State Board of Education. In a survey that covered about two-thirds of the school buses in the state, bus drivers reported more than 7,000 stop-arm violations on a single day in February, including 1,645 violations in Montgomery.
Montgomery’s school buses transport up to two-thirds of the county’s 147,000 students to 200 public schools and to 50 private facilities for special-education students.
Maryland is one of several states, including Virginia, that have pursued legislation allowing external cameras. If Montgomery and Frederick lawmakers approve the external camera bills, those counties would be the only jurisdictions in the Washington region using the devices.
Critics have said that traffic enforcement cameras sometimes take fuzzy photos, that the technology is expensive and that they impinge on privacy and due process rights. In Montgomery, residents filed a class-action lawsuit in 2008 over speed cameras, but the suit was dismissed last year.
Driver organizations generally have been cool to traffic enforcement cameras. “We don’t know if these cameras really do improve safety for schoolchildren,” said John Bowman, a spokesman for the National Motorists Association.
But in a marked departure from its general opposition to such cameras, AAA Mid-Atlantic supports the school bus cameras, said spokesman John B. Townsend II. AAA officials were “mortified” when results of the state survey were released, Townsend said.
Local officials say they may work with private monitoring firms to offset equipment costs. The firms would cover the cost of installing the equipment and monitor video feeds for the police and school systems. In return, the firms would get a portion of every ticket issued, the officials said.
Ervin said she began planning the legislation after she heard about the work done in Frederick. She also said that she spoke with the local school bus drivers union, whose members told her that they wanted the bill to pass.
“These are very serious violations,” Ervin said.
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