Saturday, February 26, 2011

Lawmakers Plan to Turn School Buses Into Camera Vans

Several pieces of legislation are being considered in Annapolis which will authorize a new type of camera to issue tickets for school bus passing violations which bear the lowest burden of proof for any violation under Maryland law while carrying far larger penalties than any existing photo enforcement violation.

Five versions of the legislation are being floated:
All would authorize the new school bus cameras but with different penalties.  This measure was considered last year but is very likely to pass this time.  The strongest of the four bills is SB0679.  This version of the bill would allow fines of up to $500 and two points assigned to the vehicle owner (who was not necessarily the driver) of the vehicle, and the offenses WOULD count towards increasing the OWNER'S (who was not necessarily the driver) insurance rates.  This legislation allows for the lowest burden of proof for any type of violation in the state, even lower than speed camera tickets.  Among the things in this legislation:

* No right for the accused to request the operator, bus driver, or citation approver to appear in court.  Evidence can be admitted in court 'without authentication' (that’s the wording of the law)

* No requirement for any type of certification or testing for these devices. And no requirement for what type of evidence they are required to produce, or even that such evidence be  sufficient to prove a violation took place.  All it is required to do is capture a photo or video of your car and plate #.  (let's repeat that: the law does NOT set any standard for proving that a violation took place.  The photo evidence need not actually prove guilt, but the court is still required to CONSIDER it to be "proof of a violation").

* No requirement, for example, that the bus actually be stopped in a location where drivers would have a reasonable expectation of a bus stopping (ie you might get a ticket coming the  opposite direction in the far lane of a 6 lane highway with a 45mph speed limit where there is no crosswalk or school crossing sign)

This legislation is being sold as enforcing violations against cars PASSING school buses, and that is how it is descried in they synopsis of the bill.  In fact, the law does not specifically limit these cameras to issuing tickets only for passing.  In reality  it says  "VIOLATION MEANS A VIOLATION OF § 21–706 OF THIS 25 SUBTITLE."  Well this is the exact text of article § 21-706."

      (a)      If a school vehicle has stopped on a roadway and is operating the alternately flashing red lights specified in § 22-228 of this article, the driver of any other vehicle  meeting or overtaking the school vehicle shall stop at least 20 feet from the rear of the school vehicle, if approaching the school vehicle from its rear, or at least 20 feet from the  front of the school vehicle, if approaching the school vehicle from its front."

Existing law makes an exception that "This section does not apply to the driver of a vehicle on a divided highway, if the school vehicle is on a different roadway." however there are many 4 or 6 lane roads which are NOT "divided highways".   So let's take an example of a bus stopping on a 4 lane road, with cars coming to a full stop CLOSER THAN 20 FEET FROM THE BUS merely because they were unaware of that restriction or made a miscalculation.
Under SB679 this bus might just make a LOT of money for the camera companies
Under SB679 this bus could potentially bring issue fines totaling up to $2000 and 8 total points (again to the owners, not the drivers) all for accidental violations which each have a zero percent chance of causing a fatality, and which neither the drivers of the cars, the bus driver, nor the students realized took place at the time.  And let's repeat: YOU DO NOT NEED TO ACTUALLY PASS THE BUS TO GET THAT $500 TICKET.

But they wouldn't REALLY use them that way would they?  If you think that you simply haven't been paying attention.  In fact incidental violations like that are extremely common with red light camera tickets already.  Many towns in Maryland issue red light camera tickets for 'rolling right turn on red' where right turns are legal, or for coming to a full stop just past the white line.  They make more money off technical violations than straight-through red light running.  A study in Washington State showed that 80% of red light camera violations were actually for rolling-right-turns, not blowing through a solid red light.  And in California they have no qualms about issuing tickets worth hundreds of dollars for these technical violations.  Not to mention the cases in Maryland where speed limits have been lowered to maximize ticket revenues.  There is every reason to think these cameras would be used in a similar way.

But wait, we NEED these for the safety of children, right?  That is certainly the emotional response, but what is the reality?  Leon Langley, the state education department's student transportation director, stated to the Baltimore Sun that there have not been any recent  fatalities or injuries among students getting off or on school buses.  One study showed that out of the 37,956 traffic fatalities in 2009 in the US, a total of 21 involved a school bus and people walking nearby.  Of these, however, 13 were caused by the bus driver slamming into the pedestrians -- including 7 children under the age of fifteen. Motorists were the cause in only 8 of these fatal accidents, which make up 0.0026 percent of motor vehicle fatalities.  And not all of the remainder were caused by cars passing buses.  A nationwide 11 year study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was even more telling, showing that out of approximately the total 37,956 average traffic fatalites nationwide, "an average of 19 school-age children die in school related traffic crashes each year, -- 5 occupants of school transportation vehicles and 14 pedestrians".  Of those 19  "over two- thirds (69%) were killed by school buses, 7 percent by vehicles functioning as school buses, and 24percent by other vehicles involved in the crashes."  This works out to an average of 3.36 killed by other vehicles, or less than 0.01% of all traffic fatalities.  In other words, your child is several times more likely to be killed by the bus itself than by passing cars. Note that we are not saying this to imply that bus drivers are unsafe, or that passing school uses is not dangerous, but the government's own data does not support the notion that these types of violations contribute to large numbers of traffic fatalities, even among children.  It seems questionable whether it is even possible for this type of photo enforcement to actually have any effect on accident rates, regardless of how high the fines are made, and it is further questionable how the huge reduction in due process rights included in this legislation improves that situations (as the reduced burden of proof only makes it more likely that drivers who were not doing anything unsafe will be penalized).

A study was cited in a recent Baltimore Sun article (a publication which generally favors photo enforcement under all circumstances) which claimed that on a single day in Maryland there were over 7000 school bus passing violations.  Yet that same report showed not one single injury resulted from the 7000 alleged violations (writers of stories quoting those figure typically forget the presumption of innocence when they are talking about traffic violations, just like photo enforcement systems do).  The fact that there have been no recent injuries or fatalities by itself points to the disconnect between this claim that there are vast numbers of these violation and the idea that these types of violations are extremely dangerous to children, since there have been no recent injuries or fatalities in Maryland attributable to this either the data in that study or the assumption about the high level of risk must be flawed.

In all probability these tickets, issued weeks later, will never prevent one single fatality --- in fact since there have been no such fatalities in Maryland for years it would be IMPOSSIBLE for the fatality rate to go down because that rate is currently ZERO.  But camera companies who are selling these devices obviously think they will profit from a cut of these $500 tickets, and the insurance companies think they can pump up insurance rates with photo violations that add points, otherwise they would not be lobbying so heavily for this.  ACS State and Local solutions (who owns all the state's largest speed camera contracts) has developed school bus monitoring cameras and has been pedaling their new wares.  Another company called "SMARTBUS Live" has retained the lobbying firm "Manis Canning & Associates" specifically for the purpose of winning support for this legislation in the General Assembly.  SMARTBusLive currently provides the devices in several towns in Rhode Island, in some cases receiving as much as a 75% cut of every ticket.