What’s the purpose of school bus stoplight camera tickets, safety, or money? Spoiler alert, it’s all about the money.
Scene of the crime
One afternoon last December, as I was driving my car on a two-lane residential street in Rockville, Maryland, I slowly and safely passed a school bus stopped at a corner on the other side of the street. But, when I was in the middle of the intersection, the bus driver activated a stop sign and red stoplights. A few days later I received a boilerplate citation in the mail stating that a camera on the bus had documented a violation (pictures included!). It demanded the immediate payment of $250 and included a threat of doubled penalties, plus court costs if I unsuccessfully contested the ticket. Regretfully, I was intimidated enough to just pay the fine and be done with it.
However, over the following weeks, I got to thinking. If a 70-year-old retiree with a spotless driving record for decades can be snared in an exorbitantly expensive nothing-burger violation, this must be happening to a lot of other drivers too, including those who cannot afford to pay the fines. I was right beyond my wildest dreams. As a retired transportation manager for a large city, it didn’t take me long to find compelling evidence that school bus stoplight camera companies are useless bottom-feeders, running an amazingly slick and lucrative racket. The "service" they provide does nothing to protect children. Here’s what I found out about it.
The sales pitch and lobbying
Many school districts and local governments, like where I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, have been bamboozled by persuasive sales pitches from school bus stoplight camera companies. (Note: All references to Montgomery County in this diary pertain to the one in Maryland.) There are two steps to the pitch:
Pitch 1: The camera companies’ modus operandi is to create and maintain a market for their product by preying upon peoples’ emotional desire to keep kids safe. Without citing any data relating to collisions, they claim that it’s extremely dangerous for kids to be transported on school buses because our communities are rife with hordes of reckless drivers who ignore school bus stoplights. They paint a dire, wildly exaggerated picture of kids continuously being at risk of being struck, injured, and killed as they get on and off school buses, having to dodge many “near misses” by out-of-control, homicidal maniacs.
The demonized “violators” need to be ticketed, heavily fined, and thereby “educated” to obey traffic laws in order to keep our kids safe. And, it can all be done with enforcement cameras on school buses capable of nabbing violators (and generating revenue from penalties) at a level far exceeding that of law enforcement officers. Not coincidentally, each camera system also includes a very efficient citation processing and penalty collection infrastructure.
Pitch 2: The camera system can be installed at “no cost” to the local government, while conveniently side-stepping normal competitive bid processes. The “violator-funded” camera company will install bus cameras and a ticket processing system for free! In exchange, the company gets to keep all of the ticket revenue until their start-up costs have been fully reimbursed. Thereafter, the company retains 60% of the revenue in a perpetual lopsided deal. The local jurisdiction gets to keep the remaining 40% – an independently funded cash cow that local governments love, especially police departments. This is the exact Faustian bargain that has played out in Montgomery County and likely many other school districts across the country.
Before the camera companies sell their wares locally, they lobby state legislatures to enact laws authorizing fines of up to $1,000 for moving violations that can occur from the instant a school bus driver activates the bus stoplights. The penalty amounts per ticket are later set by local governments within that $1,000 range. The current prevailing rate is $250 in Montgomery County and many other areas. That amount, as well as the 60/40 revenue split, is based on profit-motivated camera company lobbying, not any research or analysis.
Cold hard facts
The only specific, detailed study involving school bus stoplight cameras was done by the U.S. Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2021. Its report, DOT HS 813 102, focused on three small school districts, describing how they handled school bus camera traffic violations and related issues. The study provided no data involving safety metrics or outcomes.
NHTSA has done a series of studies on school bus safety for decades, providing highly credible evidence that school bus-related deaths of pedestrians are extremely rare. In its 2023 study, DOT HS 813 477, NHTSA determined that in the ten years from 2012 to 2021, 183 pedestrians throughout the U.S. were killed in school bus-related accidents. Of those, 128 deaths (70%) were caused by school bus drivers, not drivers of other vehicles. Also, 107 of the deaths (57%) were people over the age of 19.
There were 55 pedestrians killed in school bus-related accidents by other vehicles in the U.S. from 2012 to 2021. This figure must be viewed in light of the fact that on any one of 180 school days per year, more than 25 million students make round trips on about 475,000 school buses. That’s roughly 9 billion individual student bus trips annually.
Using Montgomery County as a local case study, three collisions of vehicles with school children getting on or off school buses have been reported in the County since 2014. The accidents resulted in injuries, but fortunately, no deaths. (The County has about 1,400 school buses transporting approximately half of its 160,000 students every school day.) Those three non-fatal vehicle collisions with student pedestrians in ten years indicate a tremendous level of safety within the County’s school bus system, which provided hundreds of millions of safe rides during that time.
Also during that period, three other County pedestrians - two older adults and one seven-year-old - were killed by school buses. Additionally, a nine-year-old waiting for a school bus died after being hit by a vehicle that left the road. None of those heart-wrenching fatalities involved vehicles disregarding school bus stoplights.
All these national and local numbers demonstrate that school buses in the U.S are superbly engineered and operated, and do an excellent job of keeping students safe. Kids are significantly safer riding school buses than walking to school or being driven in a private vehicle.
There are no studies or data indicating that school bus stoplight cameras enhance kids’ safety in any way. None. Nada. And, there simply is no school bus safety crisis in America.
Entrapments hatched by school bus drivers is key to the camera companies’ successful business model of manufacturing tickets on an industrial scale. Their bus camera systems entrap even the safest of drivers by recording harmless, unintended, minor technical infractions. The pettiness of the vast majority of the violations racked up by school bus stoplight cameras is comparable to citing cars that roll through stop signs at less than at less than 5 MPH.
Motorists, often in heavy traffic, get ensnared because they aren’t allowed adequate time to safely stop or clear the area near the bus at the split second the bus driver simultaneously activates the stoplights and camera. This predatory practice transforms school buses into mobile speed traps and school bus drivers into traffic enforcement officers (or bandits, depending on how badly you feel about it).
All school bus camera citations are initiated by school bus drivers, not law enforcement officers. Does that sound like a good idea?
My local Nextdoor social media site has hundreds of posts from residents calling the County’s school bus camera ticketing program a scam and complaining about being deliberately entrapped by school bus drivers. This includes multiple anecdotes of school bus drivers playing cat and mouse with motorists to catch them in a violation.
The processing of camera-documented violations appears to be done through a centralized boiler-room operation. Entrapment photos from multiple jurisdictions are reviewed in-house by camera company employees, then electronically forwarded to local police departments for final approval for prosecution. Those from Montgomery County are sent to two County police technicians who were hired solely to approve the final reviews. The approvals authorize the company to mail completed tickets to the "offending" vehicle owners.
Safety is the pretext, money is the object
School bus stoplight cameras have never been proven to enhance safety, but wow, do they ever generate the cash! For example, according to data provided by Montgomery County (population 1.1 million), in the seven fiscal years from 2017 thru 2023, its system produced an astonishing 273,127 citations assessing more than $66 million in fines. Of that $66 million, about $49 million was pocketed by the outside contractors.
Sorry, but those numbers are off-the-charts obscene. In FY 2023 alone, 52,047 tickets were issued, racking up $13,011,750 in fines (more than $9,200 per bus). The camera company’s 60% share of the take entitled them to more than $7.8 million.
The school bus stoplight camera industry in America is not small potatoes. I’m just spit-balling here, but if a single camera company can generate more than $7.8 million from one year’s worth of fines in just Montgomery County, the national industry as a whole probably generates hundreds of millions annually.
Consequences: A de facto regressive tax
Not only a nasty hit to middle-class household budgets, the fine for each camera ticket represents a random, regressive tax that’s most harmful to those with the least wealth. A vehicle owner earning $15 an hour, (which could include young people, single parents, fast food workers, recent immigrants, etc.) has to work more than 16 hours to come up with $250.
The program’s heavier burden on poorer County residents is evident in the number of “flagged” vehicle registrations of those who couldn’t manage to pay the penalty. (Flagged vehicles cannot be sold or transferred.) As of June 2023, 11,715 vehicle registrations were in a flagged status with the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration because County police had reported the vehicle owners’ for being delinquent in paying their bus camera fines. About 23,000 vehicles in total have been flagged over the course of the seven-year program. That’s a lot of hassles and added burdens on folks living paycheck to paycheck.
I have no qualms about paying taxes to support the County govenment and school district. But I expect my local government to provide services and protection to everyone without sponsoring rapacious swindling schemes like this mass-ticketing fiasco.
Over a quarter million costly bus camera tickets for petty infractions have created a tremendous amount of ill will for the County in general and Montgomery County Public Schools in particular. Nonetheless, the program is a sacred cow for County managers and elected officials, none of whom have shown any interest in investigating the school bus “safety camera” program, much less ending it. It’s perplexing that the County’s otherwise progressive politicians aren’t aghast over the plundering of their constituents by this patently obvious scam.
Are there drivers who disregard school bus stoplights to the point of endangering pedestrians? Yes. However, their numbers are few and no evidence has ever been produced to show they can be deterred by after-the-fact camera citations. They should be dealt with by law enforcement officers, as has been done successfully for generations. The cynical use of a handful of violators as a justification for gouging hundreds of thousands of entrapped motorists while removing tens of millions of dollars from the local economy is indefensible. It’s a massive injustice and just plain lousy public policy.
It’s troubling that this scenario is also playing out in many other jurisdictions throughout the U.S. Let your local elected officials know that school bus stoplight camera ticketing does nothing to protect school kids and has no place in your community. If they refuse to do anything about it, ask them for proof that school bus stoplight cameras improve safety. They won’t have any.