New bus cameras to help nab bad drivers

Illegal passing alarms schools

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Roadway cameras already catch Maryland drivers speeding and running red lights and could soon be used to nab another set of bad drivers - those who illegally pass school buses.

A law passed this year by the General Assembly will give local police and school boards authority to mount cameras on school buses to catch motorists illegally passing the vehicles when they are stopped to pick up and drop off children.

Legislators said the law is borne out of safety concerns, and that Baltimore and the state’s 23 counties have expressed interest in the technology.

“We think that there is a serious problem, and we’ve been asked by our localities to give them the authority to do this,” said Sen. Joseph M. Getty, Carroll Republican.

State law requires that motorists on both sides of a roadway stop and wait at least 20 feet from a school bus if it is stopped with alternating flashing red lights. Violators face a misdemeanor charge and maximum $1,000 fine.

Bus drivers can report violations to police. But police can issue a citation only if an officer witnesses the event or the bus driver can identify the offending vehicle and its operator. If the driver cannot be identified, a warning is sent to the vehicle’s owner.

The Maryland State Department of Education released a study in February that showed on a single day bus drivers reported 7,028 instances of vehicles illegally passing buses. Sixty-five percent of the state’s bus drivers were surveyed.

The new law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, would allow local school boards to set up camera programs if they so choose. Those caught illegally passing a bus would face a maximum $250 fine.

State officials have estimated that equipping every school bus with a camera could cost about $50,000 in the smallest counties and more than $1 million in the largest.

Local governments would be allowed to use camera revenues to pay equipment costs and could keep revenue equal to as much as 10 percent of the government’s total revenue.

The money from the cameras would have to be used for public safety, while additional revenue would go into the state’s general fund.

The law passed the assembly with overwhelming support, but some legislators expressed concerns about excessive reliance on cameras, as well as the new responsibilities that a camera system would put onto bus drivers.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Cecil Republican who opposed the bill, argued that bus drivers could be overburdened by having to keep records and manage the equipment and could also be called away from their jobs to testify in court against alleged violators.

“I want them to be focused on the children’s safety,” Mr. Pipkin said. “I don’t want them to be worrying about whether a camera on the bus is operating properly.”

Mr. Getty contended that the cameras’ public benefit would outweigh any unintended effects.

He also pointed out that while counties now have permission to install the cameras, that does not necessarily mean they will.

“Those who are opposed to the concept can work in those counties to not have it implemented there,” he said.

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