Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Baltimore Wages War On School Bus Drivers Over Camera Tickets

The Baltimore Press and City officials have been tripping over each other to condemn the city's school bus drivers after it was revealed that many red light and speed camera tickets had been issued to buses.  Some have been calling for school bus drivers who receive citations to be suspended or fired, despite the fact that upon close examination some of the alleged violations are questionable and perhaps never should have even been issued in the first place.

ABCNews2 ran a story showing that there had been 18 red light camera tickets issued to Baltimore City District Bus drivers and 19 to Baltimore county drivers   The story contained videos showing some of the alleged red light violations.  However, a close examination of the video reveals that many of them showed buses entering the intersection a small fraction of a second before reaching the intersection, or even showing the vehicle already at the stop line when the light turned red, or showed vehicles that were making a right turn on red.  No mention of the split second nature of those violations was made during the story, or of the fact that some might not be violations at all.  Since the mainstream press chose not to examine this, and instead to presume guilt on the part of all drivers receiving citations, we will examine them now.

The following video clip in fact shows a vehicle making a right turn.

This is the entire clip for this violation from the ABCNews2 story... starting a mere second before the actual "violation", but it looks like the bus may in fact have been accelerating from a full stop.  There is no indication of a "no turn on red" sign in the video, indicating that this may in fact have been a PERFECTLY LEGAL right turn.  Even if a 100% full stop did not occur, there's every appearance that the bus was at least virtually stopped and that the turn was in fact safe.

In the following clip for another 'violation' from the same news story, you can see the light switch from amber to red just as the bus reaches the stop line.

We single-stepped through the violations, and you can see the light changing from amber to PARTIALLY ILLUMINATED red as the bus reaches the stop line, and only being fully illuminated a frame later.

This is probably not a violation at all, and if it is, is at the extreme limit of what could be considered one.  In most other jurisdictions, the requirement for issuing a red light camera violation is for the red light (and  ONLY the red light) to be fully illuminated for a certain period of time before the vehicle reaches the line for a ticket to be issued, and the requirement is for the first of two images to be taken BEFORE the vehicle reaches the stop line, showing the light as red.  We don't think that criteria is met here... and that this driver did not in fact "run a red light" by a REASONABLE definition of the term.

A similar situation occurred in the "violation" shown below.

From on angle, single stepping, we can see the amber light going off as the bus first is a fraction before the stop line, and *only one* of the two lights becoming illuminated.  A tiny fraction later, the bus is past the line and the lights fully illuminated.

only one red light is partially illuminated here

From the opposite angle, you can observe the similar situation... this supposed 'violation' is so 'split second' that it occurs in the moment between the amber light going off, and the red going on only in the 3rd frame(a bit hard to see, but it's there).... at which point the bus is already past the stop line... into the intersection, where it is NOT supposed to stop.

Other clips in that story also showed buses where the light changed a split second before they reached the line.  One problem with ALL of these evidence images is that they are very short, so we cannot, for example, tell how long the light was amber because the light is already amber when these short clips begin.  So we don't know whether the lights comply with the minimum duration specified by law, AND we don't know whether the time specified was based on the somewhat longer number which is required for large vehicles... like school buses... to safely stop when they see the light change to amber. 

From 'The Red Light Running Crisis, Is It Deliberate"
Some would say there is no excuse for running a red light, especially a school bus.  But there is... it's called PHYSICS.  The fact is, it takes a certain amount of time and distance for a vehicle to stop, and it takes MUCH longer for a school bus to stop than a passenger car.  That time must also account for the FULL normal range of human reaction time, which is not instantaneous.  In addition, motorists DON'T KNOW how long the amber light is before it turns red, they need to GUESS, and if they are the wrong distance from the intersection when it changes they must do so within 1 second after the light turns amber.  If the yellow light is too short to allow large vehicles to stop, then even the best driver (and school bus drivers tend to be among the best) might be unable to stop and find themselves a fraction of a second behind the white line when it turns red.  (Read more about the 'dilemma zone' created by bad traffic engineering practices).  It is on that fraction of a second margin (one which Baltimore could FIX by increasing yellow light times) that some would now call for school bus drivers to be suspended or fired over camera tickets.  It is likely that if the city increased yellow light times to long enough to allow for the stopping distance of heavy vehicles, that the large majority of school bus red light violations would miraculously disappear.

Meanwhile, other media organizations have been referring to speed camera citations being issued to bus drivers, again presuming ALL the violations are legitimate without closely examining them.  We expect to get into this in MUCH more detail in a future article, but for now we will say that we have reported on speed camera errors many times, the fact that there have been MANY cases of erroneous speed camera citations sent by Baltimore.... including an apparent speed measurement errors by a camera on Cold Spring Lane involving other large vehicles, and other cases where cameras were discovered to be enforcing speed limits other than the posted speed limit.  Those rushing to condemn the city's school bus drivers might be advised not to assume that all of the accused drivers are guilty (and a camera ticket is only an accusation of a violation), merely because some of the may be.

Unfortunately, some in the press and elsewhere have chosen to indulge in a knee jerk reaction, with at least one major paper running an editorial calling on bus drivers to be "automatically" suspended or fired over camera tickets, without seriously examining all of the evidence.  The fact that multiple drivers often use the same vehicle, and that speed cameras do not identify the driver, and as a result the risk exists that the wrong driver could be charged and fired, seems to be lost on many as well.

Meanwhile the bus drivers, who are public employees whose jobs depend on the same city government which earned $19million last year off speed camera tickets, are probably all scared into silence right now and unwilling to contest or talk about any bogus tickets they might have gotten.  So the city is prepared to take some of the best and safest drivers out there and 'throw them under the bus', without any thought given to due process or the principals that underlay our justice system.  If they took a closer look at the questionable nature of some of these 'violation', perhaps what they should really be asking is if this is the sort of thing they charge school buses for, what do the camera tickets Baltimore gives everyone else look like?