School bus safety camera plan advances in Washington County

January 10, 2012|By HEATHER KEELS |

WASHINGTON COUNTY — The Washington County Board of Commissioners Tuesday backed the idea of using cameras to catch motorists who illegally pass stopped school buses.

The commissioners agreed to have county attorneys draft an ordinance authorizing use of the cameras. That ordinance will then go to a public hearing before returning to the commissioners for a  vote, Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore said.

The cameras, to be installed on the outside of school buses, would be used to watch for vehicles that violate state law by failing to stop when a bus has its lights flashing and stop arm extended.

Drivers caught by the cameras would be sent a civil citation and charged a fine of up to $250, Mullendore said.

The cameras would be installed at no cost to the county or school board by a third-party vendor that would monitor the cameras and, in return, keep a portion of the fines, he said. The remaining amount would go toward public safety initiatives.

“I would prefer that we have no violations,” Mullendore said. “I hope we never collect any funds. That just means we’re protecting our children as we should be.”

State lawmakers passed enabling legislation last spring allowing the camera use.

In a presentation to the board Tuesday, Mullendore addressed some previously unresolved questions about the cameras.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office has taken the position that buses contracted by the school board are included in the law, Mullendore said. Washington County Public Schools has 160 buses and contracts 70 more, a school system spokesman has said.

Other than enforcing the school bus law, the only other use for the camera footage would be the prosecution of criminal violations, Mullendore said.

For example, if someone shot at a bus driver or tried to kidnap a child, footage from the cameras could be used as evidence, Mullendore said. However, the footage could not be used for other traffic violations such as speeding, he said.

Mullendore said the county would begin by placing the cameras on about 20 buses that have historically had a problem with illegal passing.

For the first 60 days, violators would get a warning instead of a citation, he said.

When citations are issued, recipients would have the option to pay the fine, challenge it in court, or have their registration suspended, Mullendore said.

If someone other than the vehicle owner was driving at the time of the violation, the vehicle owner would have to prove that in court to have the citation transferred to the person who was driving, he said.

The penalty for a violation captured by a camera would be less severe than the penalty for a violation witnessed by a police officer, Mullendore said. A violation witnessed by an officer carries a fine of $570 and two points on the violator’s driving record.

A violation captured only by the camera would not result in any points against a driver’s license, Mullendore said.

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