Wednesday, February 23, 2011

MD Bill Would Catch Drivers Who Illegally Pass School Buses

ANNAPOLIS — Delegates in the House Environmental Matters Committee expressed shock Tuesday afternoon about the number of drivers who are passing stopped school buses.
Delegate Patrick Hogan, a Frederick County Republican, said he hoped he could translate their concern into support for his bill, which would allow school districts to use cameras on the outside of school buses to catch those violating the law.

The cameras would be among the tools used to issue citations to owners of vehicles driven past a bus.

"I think the hearing went very well, and there seems to be consensus among committee members that we need to take action on the issue," said Hogan, who said he expected the committee would continue to discuss the details of the bill.

Hogan believes points should be placed on a person's driver's license for a violation, and the fine should be higher than the $100 being proposed.

Leon Langley, Maryland State Department of Education director of pupil transportation, testified that he had organized an effort this month for school bus drivers to record the number of violations they witnessed in one day. Drivers from 19 of 24 jurisdictions have sent him their results, based on a survey performed on Feb. 9 or 10, depending on the weather in their areas.

So far, 3,491 of 4,656 bus drivers have responded to the survey. In a single day, those bus drivers reported 5,465 instances of cars going past a school bus that was stopped with its stop sign and flashing lights extended.

"Those are just astounding statistics," said Delegate Tony O'Donnell, a Republican. "Thousands of violations in one day."

Frederick County Public Schools has already been using cameras to track violators, but as the law currently stands it can't issue citations. Last year, school system officials recorded more than 400 violations. So far this school year, they have recorded 198, said Veronica Lowe, FCPS director of transportation.

"The numbers are staggering," said Walter Brilhart, a retired associate superintendent who is now a consultant for the school system.

School officials said students are safe on school buses, but getting on and off them is a "danger zone" where students could be hit by cars.

"Why would someone pass a stopped school bus with red lights flashing and stop arm deployed?" Lowe said. "We don't know that reason, we just know it's not legal and puts our children in extreme danger."

In at least the past two years, no student has been hurt or killed by a car passing a school bus, Langley said, but school officials said they did not want to wait for someone to be killed or hurt to pass a law.

They envision the cameras as part of a public awareness campaign already implemented, Brilhart said.

For instance, the school system prepared and distributed pamphlets in both English and Spanish to educate drivers about the dangers of passing stopped school buses.

"The cameras won't protect the child from being struck, but what the camera will do is increase driver awareness, and that's what we're after," Brilhart said.