Montgomery County Council members say they want drivers to pay a higher fine when a camera catches them illegally passing a school bus.
From early January through March, new cameras on Montgomery County Public Schools buses caught about 272 violations and county police have issued $125 citations to those drivers, according to data presented at a Monday joint meeting of the County Council’s Education and Public Safety committees.
The cameras automatically record drivers who pass a stopped bus while its stop arm is extended with flashing red lights.
The $125 citations are too low, council members said, and they want to see the fine double to $250 — the maximum amount allowed by law.
Council President Craig L. Rice, who chairs the education committee, said each citation issued “represents a life that could have been taken, a child that could have been hit.”
He noted the penalty is stiffer for drivers who are caught directly by a police officer: a $570 citation and three points on a driver’s license.
“You are getting off very easy with our school bus cameras at 125 [dollars],” said Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown.
A county District Court judge set the current citation amount, said Richard Harrison, a manager in county police’s automated traffic enforcement unit.
The joint committees asked that council staff develop a resolution — which the nine-member council would need to pass — that would urge the District Court to increase the fine.
“We have a serious problem in people driving by stopped school buses,” said Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, the council’s public safety committee chairman.
The bus camera program, which costs about $250,000 annually, currently includes 25 cameras installed on bus routes with higher numbers of passing incidents.
Wiring for the cameras will be installed on 75 more buses so the cameras can be swapped among the buses.
The County Council enacted a law in March 2012 that enables police to install and operate cameras on school buses to catch drivers who pass the vehicles when they are stopped and operating their flashing red lights.
“This is catching more people than we could ever catch on our own,” county police Assistant Chief Betsy Davis said Monday of the bus cameras.
Harrison told the council members that the number of violations might have been higher than 272. On days when buses were driving through bad weather conditions, salt and snow spray covered the camera lenses, he said.
“That kills the whole day that they’re out there,” he said. “We can’t get any citations.”
Harrison said police will look into this summer how to keep camera lenses clear during such weather.
About 128 of the 272 issued citations had been paid, resulting in about $16,000 collected in fines, Harrison said. The cameras will continue to operate on buses used for summer school.
In continued efforts to educate the public about the law and the cameras, he said, county police will launch a public service announcement and advertising on buses and bus stops starting in August.
Council members expressed support for expanding the program.
Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda said the county, facing a “very serious” issue, should expand the program as fast as it can.
Harrison said the county will consider the program’s next steps during discussions on the fiscal 2016 budget.
Todd Watkins, director of transportation for the county school system, said officials were “very careful and cautious” determining which routes the first 25 cameras should be placed on.
Only recently, he said, had all 25 cameras been placed on a bus.
“I think the slow-grow approach is the right one,” he said.