Cameras could ticket school bus passers

Lawmakers weigh crackdown after survey finds many violations

  • Linda LaMarsh, who has driven buses for about four years, is reflected in the rear view mirror during her afternoon bus run on Mountain Road.
Linda LaMarsh, who has driven buses for about four years, is… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
March 19, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

As Anne Arundel County school bus driver Linda LaMarsh made the third stop on Mountain Road during her late run Wednesday afternoon, she put on her hazard lights, then her yellow lights, then her red lights that warn drivers not to pass while children are getting off.

The driver of a dark blue sedan traveling in the opposite direction didn't even pause while blowing through the lights and LaMarsh's extended stop sign — flagrantly committing a violation worth a $570 fine and three points on the driver's license if an officer had been there.

"There's no way I can get a tag number if they're going that fast," LaMarsh lamented.

But a camera could.

Legislation before the General Assembly would allow local school systems to mount the electronic enforcement devices on buses to deter what is treated under state law as one of the most serious nonfelony traffic violations a driver can commit.

The bills' sponsors include Republicans from Maryland's rural counties, a bloc that has tended to oppose the use of cameras to enforce laws against speeding and running red lights. But passing a stopped school bus is seen as so offensive that it has trumped libertarian ideals for even deeply conservative lawmakers.

A recent survey by the Maryland State Department of Education found that the law is broken more than 7,000 times a day statewide. But statistics from the District Court of Maryland show that only about 1,700 tickets are issued each year for the violation.

LaMarsh said she witnesses the offense almost every day as she ferries students from local schools. She counted three violations just Wednesday afternoon on her run down Mountain Road, a two- to three-lane state highway that is the main drag of the peninsula that ends at Gibson Island. But she said that during her nearly four years as a driver with Brooks Transportation Service, she can't recall ever seeing a driver being pulled over for going through her red lights.

"There's plenty of times I wish I had the authority to write tickets and fine people who run red lights," the Pasadena resident said.

The legislation is by no means a sure thing. Though there is broad sentiment in the committees that action is needed, many details have to be worked out.

A Senate committee deferred action Thursday on a statewide version of the bill. In the House, a subcommittee handling the legislation indicated that it prefers to start small by passing a local bill implementing the cameras as a pilot program in Frederick County, where school officials have started the ball rolling.

Walter Brilhart, a consultant to the Frederick County public schools, said the system's bus drivers noticed more and more drivers ignoring the signals to halt for stopped school buses.

"We've got kids as targets here," Brilhart said. "We have 325-350 buses on the road at any given time in the afternoon, and we may have 10 police officers."

But Ron Ely, founder of the organization StopBigBrotherMD, which also opposes speed and red-light cameras, said the proposed bills set the burden of proof at the lowest possible level for a conviction. The group contends that the use of automated enforcement for school bus passing could result in expensive wrongful convictions.

"In our justice system, even murderers and rapists have the presumption of innocence," he said. "Apparently some believe it is OK for drivers to be presumed guilty. In what way is it in the public interest to have a law which allows a mere accusation by a machine to be considered proof of guilt without even specifying requirements for the evidence it must collect?"

Ely said the rate of accidents connected with passing school buses is actually very low. He contends that school buses — rather than other drivers — pose the biggest threat to students in transit.

School officials acknowledge that there have been no recent cases in which Maryland children have been killed or injured by illegally passing drivers. But Brilhart said some other states have adopted similar bills named in honor of children who died in such incidents.

"Let's not do that. Let's not put a kid's name on this bill. Let's be proactive," he said.

Some drivers appear not to know that they're required to stop when they encounter a school bus coming in the opposite direction, Brilhart said, He said the problem is especially acute on four-lane, undivided highways, where stopping for a school bus is required. (The rule does not apply to drivers going the opposite direction on divided highways.)

Brilhart said Frederick officials raised their concerns with a statewide association of school transportation officials and found widespread agreement that passing school buses is a serious problem.

"Every school transportation manager is seeing this happen," he said.

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