School bus dan­ger

Our view: The rise in num­ber of Mary­land mo­torists il­le­gally pass­ing stopped school buses de­serves more than just a warn­ing

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

Move over, air con­di­tion­ing. For all the con­cerns ex­pressed in re­cent days over too-hot class­rooms in Bal­ti­more County when tem­per­a­tures soar to 90 de­grees and above, stu­dents may face a big­ger safety threat from mo­torists who fail to stop for school buses load­ing and un­load­ing chil­dren on county streets, roads and by­ways.

Every year, Mary­land’s school bus driv­ers spend a day record­ing the num­ber of times mo­torists pass them when they are stopped with their lights flash­ing and stop signs ex­tended. The lat­est sur­vey re­sults show Bal­ti­more County pub­lic school bus driv­ers recorded 1,002 in­ci­dents of such il­le­gal be­hav­ior on a sin­gle day. That was the high­est num­ber re­ported by any Mary­land school sys­tem, out­pac­ing the two largest, Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s coun­ties. It was a sig­nif­i­cant uptick from last year when just 269 such vi­o­la­tions were ob­served in Bal­ti­more County, a nearly four-fold in­crease in one year’s time.

And while Bal­ti­more County bus driv­ers ob­served the big­gest in­crease, many other school sys­tems saw more ve­hi­cles speed­ing past buses as well. Over­all, the num­ber of ob­served vi­o­la­tions rose from 2,795 last year to 4,326 on a sin­gle day in April. That fol­lows what had been largely a pat­tern of yearly de­cline — fall­ing from the record 7,011 ob­served five years ago.

What is hap­pen­ing? In most cases, ex­perts say, it’s a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt by com­muters to avoid get­ting stuck be­hind school buses pick­ing up or drop­ping off chil­dren. It could scarcely be un­in­ten­tional, given that the bright yel­low buses aren’t ex­actly dif­fi­cult to ob­serve when their red and yel­low lights are flash­ing and stop signs ex­tended. And it seems equally un­likely that mo­torists are wholly un­aware of their le­gal obli­ga­tion to stop.

But there may be at least two ag­gra­vat­ing cir­cum­stances. The first is that traf­fic vol­umes have in­creased, mean­ing more ve­hi­cles are on the road more of­ten. That’s a na­tional trend and likely a prod­uct of in­creased eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity and low fuel prices. It’s also thought to be a fac­tor in a 7.2 per­cent in­crease in high­way fa­tal­i­ties last year, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion sta­tis­tics.

That rather large jump in fa­tal­i­ties is alarm­ing (it’s the high­est one-year in­crease since 1966) be­cause that, too, bucks the over­all trend, which has been a de­cline in deadly crashes.

The other fac­tor may be a lack of en­force­ment. Po­lice is­sue tick­ets to mo­torists who il­le­gally pass stopped school buses in­fre­quently, and a statewide pro­gram to en­cour­age greater en­force­ment ef­forts wasn’t funded last year. Re­cently, how­ever, Gov. Larry Ho­gan an­nounced his of­fice would be re­leas­ing $500,000 to lo­cal po­lice de­part­ments for school bus safety en­force­ment in “hot spots,” which ad­vo­cates hope will help.

Still, it’s clear that many Mary­lan­ders haven’t taken the prob­lem An an­nual sur­vey by driv­ers found an in­crease in the num­ber of cars pass­ing stopped school buses. se­ri­ously. Sta­tis­ti­cally, school buses re­main one of the safest forms of trans­porta­tion. Na­tion­wide, chil­dren suf­fer about 17,000 schoobus-re­lated in­juries each year, but fa­tal­i­ties are rare — about 61 school pas­sen­ger deaths be­tween 2005 and 2014, ac­cord­ing to NHTSA. About 119 pedes­tri­ans age 18 or younger died in a 10-year pe­riod from ac­ci­dents stem­ming from school trans­porta­tion, the agency re­ports.

In Bal­ti­more County, it isn’t just school bus driv­ers who are wit­ness­ing the prob­lem. School-bus-in­volved crashes have be­come more com­mon­place, too. The Bal­ti­more County Po­lice Depart­ment re­ports that the num­ber of such in­ci­dents has risen from 180 in 2011 to 255 last year, a 42 per­cent in­crease in just four years.

There is one pos­si­ble so­lu­tion that ought to be ex­plored — in­stalling ex­te­rior cam­eras on school buses to catch mo­torists who break the law. In Mont­gomery County, the school board has agreed to al­low a Dal­las-based ven­dor, Force Mul­ti­plier So­lu­tions, to in­stall and mon­i­tor such de­vices on its en­tire 1,287-bus fleet af­ter ex­per­i­ment­ing with 25. The pro­gram will cost the county noth­ing, as it’s paid for by the rev­enue from the many $125 traf­fic citations the cam­eras are bound to gen­er­ate.

That’s cer­tain to be con­tro­ver­sial — much as us­ing cam­eras to pe­nal­ize speed­ers and red-light run­ners has been in the past (par­tic­u­larly when op­er­ated by for-profit com­pa­nies). But it’s also bound to re­duce ir­re­spon­si­ble be­hav­ior. Mo­torists who don’t want to pay a fine need only obey the law and pro­tect stu­dents in the process. Bet­ter for school sys­tems to take such de­fen­sive ac­tion now than adopt a sim­i­lar re­sponse af­ter one or more stu­dent fa­tal­i­ties.

DY­LAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO/CAR­ROLL COUNTY TIMES

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