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County council approves cameras to catch drivers who pass stopped buses

About 100,000 MCPS students ride a school bus every day. To remind drivers that they can’t pass the bus while students are getting on or off, each bus sports many safety features: flashing lights, a crossing arm on the front, and a stop sign to remind the motorists of the rule. But many drivers disregard these signals.

Now, they may be deterred by another feature: a fine of up to $250. The county council approved today the installation of new safety cameras on school buses that will ticket any drivers who pass a stopped bus. The cameras would turn on when a bus’ stop sign swings out and snap photos of any drivers who pass the vehicle.

Council member Phil Andrews said the measure is necessary to keep children safe.

“There’s good documentation on the frequency of problems of drivers driving past school buses that are unloading or loading children,” Andrews said. “This is a very dangerous circumstance and a very dangerous activity, and it’s happening far too often.”

Violations are indeed frighteningly frequent. In a March 2011 study by the Maryland Department of Education, MCPS bus drivers reported 1,645 instances of motorists ignoring bus signals on a single day. Fortunately, only a few students have ever been hit by cars while getting on or off of the bus, said Todd Watkins, MCPS Department of Transportation Director.

Under the previous procedure for dealing with these violations, the bus driver must record the violator’s license plate number and report the incident to the police. Because the driver cannot provide hard evidence, police can only send a letter to the alleged violator reprimanding him for passing the school bus.

MCPS added safety cameras to 202 buses over the past two years. These cameras film the road alongside the bus, and the driver presses a button whenever someone passes the bus illegally. Later, a supervisor at the bus depot checks the times of button presses against the video to identify vehicles. Due to the inefficiency of this process, only a fraction of videos are actually checked, and even if a violator is identified, police can only issue a written reprimand.

Whitman’s route 1419 bus is equipped with one such camera. Driver Arturo Nicolaldi said he sees two or three drivers pass the bus when students are getting on or off each day.

“It’s really dangerous for the students who are crossing,” Nicolaldi said.

The new cameras would probably cost around $5,000 each, Andrews said. The cameras would first be installed on the most problematic routes. Because the cameras would record and report violations automatically in the same manner as speed cameras, bus drivers would no longer have to write down license plate numbers or record violation times, Andrews said. The fine for passing a stopped bus would be up to $250.

“The committee thinks the presence of cameras and the prospect of a significant fine should reduce the number of instances in which we see this dangerous behavior,” he said. “We hope drivers will get the message that this is completely unacceptable and needs to stop.”

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