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St. Mary’s County is considering installing cameras on school buses to catch those driving past when students are getting on or off. The St. Mary’s County commissioners agreed Tuesday to take the request from the school board and sheriff’s office to a public hearing.

The sheriff’s office issued 73 citations last year for vehicles passing a bus while stop signs were flashing. That was only in the instances of deputies catching them in the act.

The camera system would take photos of vehicles and their license plates passing school buses with their stop signs activated. The ticket is then mailed to the vehicle’s owner, not necessarily who was driving at the time.

If a deputy catches a driver running a school bus’ stop sign, the driver is issued a moving violation, which puts points on a driver’s license and carries a $550 fine, said Sheriff Tim Cameron (R).

The automated system would issue a civil citation, not to exceed $250, which doesn’t add points.

“We’ve had a number of close calls” while children are getting on or off school buses, said Michael Martirano, superintendent of St. Mary’s County public schools. There was an injury on St. Andrew’s Church Road some years back, he said.

Cameron said the 73 tickets his office handed out last year “doesn’t speak really to the number of people that violate the law.” There were 29 school bus-related accidents in the last three years, he said. “The most dangerous part of travel for the child is getting on and off the school bus.”

The program doesn’t cost the county commissioners or the school board any money, said Jeff Thompson, director of transportation for schools. A private vendor (not selected yet) pays for the installation of the cameras and maintains the system, making its money back from the tickets issued. However, a technician or a deputy in the sheriff’s office would be responsible for actually authorizing a ticket.

“I don’t support any program like this as a revenue source. It should be about public safety,” said Commissioner Cindy Jones (R).

“It truly is about public safety. We don’t have a dog in the hunt,” Cameron said.

The program is already in place in Frederick County, Thompson said, where tickets for $125 are issued. The vendor gets all of the money for the first 4,000 violations, he said. After that, money would go to the county. Any such terms would be worked out locally for St. Mary’s County.

Once a ticket is mailed out to the vehicle’s owner, a website’s address will be included where a video of the offense can be viewed.

“What entities are responsible for the security of these tapes?” Jones asked.

The vendor, Cameron said.

“If information remains on a server, can it be subpoenaed for a criminal case? There’s a lot of privacy issues our country’s going to have to deal with. Technology changes quite rapidly. The judicial system is quite often slow to change,” Jones said.

“The focus is on the tag number, not necessarily the operator,” Cameron said. How long the vendor is required to keep data on its servers can be worked out in the contract, he said.

“I do know for a fact you can’t see who’s in that car” from the glare on windshields, said Commissioner Dan Morris (R). Overall, he said. “It’s a good idea.” “Sooner or later we should enact this,” said Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R). All five commissioners supported going to public hearing.

jbabcock@somdnews.com