Cameras planted on Montgomery County Public Schools buses have caught about 710 instances of drivers illegally passing the buses from early January to mid-August, according to school officials.
By the end of the last school year, the county school system had 25 cameras installed on school buses on routes with the highest number of passing violations.
The drivers involved in those 710 violations between Jan. 2 and Aug. 18 were issued $125 citations for passing a stopped bus while its stop arm was extended with flashing red lights.
In roughly the first month of their use, from early January to early February, five cameras had caught 10 drivers making illegal passes. From January through March, cameras caught 272 violations.
The 710 violations marked a higher number than police expected, said Capt. Paul Starks, a Montgomery County police spokesman.
“That’s a double-edged sword, sort of,” Starks said of the violation count. “We’re kind of excited that the cameras are working that way, but it’s also disappointing to have that many violations because it [implies] that the problem is bigger than maybe what we thought and there’s a lot more education that has to occur.”
A statewide survey released on Aug. 20 showed another angle of the issue.
The survey, sponsored by the Maryland State Department of Education, found that Montgomery drivers illegally passed a bus with an extended stop arm 893 times in a single day.
Bus drivers observed 3,505 such violations around Maryland, according to a Department of Education press release.
The number of violations Montgomery bus drivers observed in the one-day survey has decreased in recent years, though the number of participating drivers has varied.
Todd Watkins, director of transportation for the county school system, said 778 Montgomery bus drivers participated on May 14 and witnessed the 893 passing incidents. On average, each driver saw 1.1 incidents, he said.
About 1,016 drivers participated in 2013, observing 1,078 incidents, for roughly the same average of 1.1 events per driver. In the 2012 survey, 988 drivers reported 1,494 violations — about 1.5 incidents per driver.
Watkins said he thinks publicity about automated cameras on some buses contributed to the decrease in violations in this year’s survey.
Among Maryland’s counties, Montgomery had the highest number of violations this year. Watkins attributed the higher number to the district’s size and the more common presence of multi-lane roadways compared to other counties.
Starks said county police expect that, similar to what has happened elsewhere, it may take months or years until violations peak, then decline as people understand that the law protects children walking near stopped buses, he said.
This school year, Starks said, the plan is rotate 25 cameras among 100 buses. Near the end of the school year, police and school officials will discuss whether to expand the program, he said.
Montgomery County Council President Craig Rice said he still wants drivers caught by bus cameras to pay a higher fine — around $250. Council members, including Rice, said in April that they wanted to see the fine doubled and the camera program expanded.
Rice said Monday that some think increasing the camera penalty could encourage people to fight a citation in court. Arguing before a judge, however, could serve as “a wake-up call,” he said.
Rice said people need to understand how serious the violation is.
“We’re actually going to have to start pulling some folks over,” he said.