- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Since the start of the school year, 23 motorists have ignored the stop arm and flashing lights on the Montgomery County, Md., school bus that stops at Route 28 and Turkey Foot Road.

Laura Bivans knows because she's out there every morning with her daughter, keeping a log and sometimes even videotaping the offenders who speed past.

"It's very frustrating to stand out there and see people not caring about children," said Mrs. Bivans, who started keeping track after her daughter had a near-miss. "They just don't care."

And that's just one student at one stop in one county. While the problem isn't new, there is growing concern among suburban educators that preoccupied, aggressive drivers and the modern, hurry-up mentality are putting students at risk across the region.

"We must control this situation before a student is seriously injured or killed," said David Miller, associate superintendent for school services in Prince William County, Va.

"My biggest fear is that I won't be able to retire before I'm called to an accident where a child's been hit by a car," said John Matthews, assistant director of transportation at Montgomery County schools.

Nationwide, 22 children died in school-bus loading and unloading zones during the 1999-2000 school year, though none in the D.C. area, according to a survey by the Kansas State Department of Education. The national figure was 18 the previous school year and 10 the year before that.

Last week, the Prince William school system joined several others in the area that instruct their bus drivers to record for police the license-plate numbers of bus-stop lawbreakers.

By law, offenders in Prince William can be charged with reckless driving and fined $250.

However, most of these efforts are all bark and no bite.

Montgomery County authorities, for instance, just mail warning letters to the address listed for the license-plate number. According to Maryland law, police are to send a warning to the car's owner if the offender cannot be identified by the bus driver.

In the case of Prince William County, police Sgt. Kim Chinn said a bus driver would have to identify a motorist and plate number and then go before a magistrate. Most bus drivers will not go to the trouble, can't identify the offending motorist or don't have the time.

In Delaware, a long-standing law makes it easier for police and bus drivers, said Ted Tull, administrative director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.

Bus drivers can sign the warrants, and officers serve the car's owner or whoever the owner says was driving at the time. The bus driver then shows up in court on behalf of the prosecution and are often happy to do so, Mr. Tull said.

The fine in Delaware ranges from $115 to $230. Suspension of an offender's license is mandatory. Incarceration also is possible.

Mr. Miller admits no tag numbers have been turned over to police in Prince William County. He said bus drivers are recording violations primarily for the sake of research.

"It's not our intent to go out and arrest people," he said.

Administrators will examine the data collected by bus drivers to determine how much of a problem exists and where children are most at risk. Police may be asked to step up patrols in those areas.

Mr. Tull, a former state trooper, said police sometimes ride along in buses to record the violators themselves, or follow behind buses and pull over the violators.

Other than that, school districts are hoping the media can urge motorists to behave.

But it's not that way everywhere. In North Carolina, video cameras are ensuring that reckless drivers are punished with up to five points on their licenses.

The cameras "actually validated what we were hearing from the bus drivers," said Derek Graham, section chief of transportation services for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

The idea came to the state agency after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awarded a grant to study the problem. Officials found that motorists zoomed past stopped school buses between 1,000 and 2,000 a day across that state.

The camera-based crackdown, coupled with publicity, reduced the average number of daily violations in Onslow County, N.C., from 22.6 in October 1998 to 7.5 in January 2000.

Mr. Graham said the videos have not been tested in court, but several offenders have pleaded guilty after seeing themselves on tape.

Silent Witness, the vendor which provided the cameras, is now marketing them to other school districts, though no D.C.-area school systems are buying.

"There's no plans to do cameras now," said Robert Callahan, a member of the Prince George's County, Md., school board.

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