School Bus Cameras Keep an Eye on Passing Drivers

It is illegal for a driver to pass a stopped school bus. It can be dangerous and even deadly. Now, Montgomery County, Md., has a new  video safety system on some of its buses to keep an eye on motorists whose driving puts students at risk.

The danger is greatest when students are getting on and off stopped school buses. Veteran drivers have seen close calls involving students and parents almost hit by motorists speeding by.

"A student or pedestrian could have been struck or get seriously maimed or even killed," Pete Ram said. "But it happens a lot. I see it quite often."

The sign posted on Wilson Lane in Bethesda near the entrance to Pyle Middle School says, "It is unlawful to pass a stopped school bus in either direction." That’s the law in Virginia and the District, as well as Maryland.

Montgomery County has replaced 96 buses with new ones equipped with two onboard cameras -- one aimed at traffic behind, one looking forward. When there’s a violation. The driver hits a button to time code the video so school officials can review it.

Chris Cram, of Montgomery County Public Schools showed NBC Washington video of violators on a computer screen.

"The bus is stopped, the lights are on, the swing arm comes out, the truck continues by," he said. "Here you can see it continue and travel past the front of the bus."

What happens to violators caught on camera?

"They get a warning letter issued from the police department saying, 'Your car was seen passing a stopped school bus at this place at this time and there could be a significant fine for that and kids could be in danger. Don’t do it again,'" said Todd Watkins, transport director for the county schools.

A warning is issued, but not a ticket. Public schools in Montgomery and Frederick counties are asking the State Legislature for a law allowing tickets to be sent to violators, but there are groups and individuals opposed to more camera-issued tickets, arguing that there are already red-light cameras that some see as not much more than a revenue source and speed cameras where drivers who know their locations hit the brakes, then speed up after passing them.

But school officials said bus cameras are for safety rather than revenue, and parents appreciate it.

"It would be a concern if cars aren’t stopping," Brandy Dufrense said. "I have two little ones. They pay attention to the cars somewhat, but you never know if they’re going to be excited about something and not stop for a car going across the road. And if a car isn’t being cautious, it can be very dangerous."

Other Maryland county public schools systems are considering putting cameras on their buses.  But they are waiting to see if state lawmakers authorize tickets for violators caught on camera passing a stopped school bus.

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