Credit: Aaron Kraut

East West Highway in Silver Spring and River Road in Bethesda have emerged as hotspots for drivers who illegally blow by stopped school buses, according to new data from the county’s bus camera program.

East West Highway between 16th Street and Georgia Avenue was the worst offender, racking up more than 900 citations for illegally passing a bus between Oct. 13, 2016, and May 31, 2017. River Road just north of the intersection with Little Falls Parkway was second, with more than 850 citations.

This year, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) expanded from 25 to 217 the number of buses equipped with cameras to catch law-breaking motorists, and the total number of tickets issued over the year skyrocketed accordingly. During the 2015-16 school year, the county issued 2,967 citations. During the 2016-17 school year the total soared to 15,446, according Todd Watkins, transportation director for MCPS.

After years of hearing bus drivers fret about motorists breezing past as students are boarding or exiting, Watkins said the numbers didn’t surprise him.

“But I think the police department was shocked,” he said.

MCPS and the county police launched the school bus program in January 2014 by placing cameras on a handful of buses. They decided to move to a different vendor last year and also resolved to outfit the entire 1,287-bus fleet by the middle of 2019.

Watkins said the rollout is happening first on routes where buses seem to get passed most often, problem zones that officials identified through driver surveys and annual, one-day audits. Capt. Tom Didone, director of the police department’s traffic division, said the worst location for violations after East West Highway and River Road was the 2200 to 3700 block of Bel Pre Road in Aspen Hill, with more than 750 citations. Then came the 8800 block of Colesville Road in Silver Spring, with more than 725 citations, and the 8300 to 8900 block of 16th Street in Silver Spring, with 525.

Didone said distracted driving is one culprit and another is ignorance, since some people equate a school bus stop sign with a street stop sign and think they can proceed after a pause.

“There’s a degree of uneducated or uninformed people, and then some people who selfishly put their own interests ahead of the safety of kids,” he said.

Watkins said a high school student in Bethesda was recently struck by a car that was illegally passing a stopped school bus. Fortunately, the student bounced up from the roadway, grabbed her backpack and walked away, but Watkins said the driver is facing several traffic charges.  

The price for flouting the law is about to go up starting July 1; state legislation passed earlier this year will increase the fine from $125 to $250 for each violation.

Sen. Nancy King (D-Montgomery Village) sponsored the change, one of several proposals filed dealing with school bus camera programs. Delegate Al Carr (D-Kensington) offered an unsuccessful proposal to hike the fine only for repeat offenders to $250.

“My goal was really to try and separate the people that are doing this out of ignorance or some other circumstance versus the person who is really willfully endangering kids,” he said.

Carr said it’s unclear whether the fines act as a deterrent, but he pointed out that King’s bill requires MCPD to collect data and forward it to state lawmakers to evaluate the program’s effectiveness.

Didone said between Oct. 13 and May 31, 159 people received more than one citation through the bus camera program.

The county’s new vendor, Dallas-based Force Multiplier Solutions, checks the footage recorded and transmitted to them each time a school bus stops to pick up or drop off students. Force Multiplier employees isolate clips of any potential violations and send them for review to the county police, who are responsible for confirming the infraction and sending out the citation.

The vendor will pocket the fine proceeds until the revenues exceed the company’s expenses for the program, at which point the county and Force Multiplier will divide the profits equally. Watkins said he doesn’t anticipate this break-even point coming until 2019, when the vendor will finish the $15.4 million project to install cameras across the county’s bus fleet.

The funds will flow into the county’s general fund and will likely help pay for safety programs. However, Watkins said the camera program’s purpose isn’t to make money but to discourage the dangerous practice of passing stopped buses, something that happens an estimated 800 to 1,200 times each school day in Montgomery County.

“Every time that happens, it’s a potential tragedy for some student and their family and the entire school community,” he said.