BALTIMORE, MD - They're designed to catch drivers on their worst behavior.
Speed and red light cameras installed throughout Maryland are supposed to be a lesson, and come with a monetary incentive to slow down and drive smarter.
An ABC2 News Investigation found some surprising drivers caught on those cameras.
They're the men and women trusted with driving your kids to and from school.
They may be the most precious cargo on the road. Little ones, backpacked and bright-eyed, stand ready at the bus stop with their anxious parents.
Rodgers Forge mom Kristy Knuppel has her own concerns as she sends her three children off to school. She says, "I keep my fingers crossed that they all stay in their seats."
Like many parents, Knuppel worries about her kids' behavior on the bus. But we have questions about how the drivers behave after looking into ticket records obtained as part of an ABC2 News Investigation.
We've spotted bus drivers breaking all kinds of rules, watching as speed and red light cameras capture them blowing through red lights, speeding nearly 40 miles per hour over the limit, even getting busted in school zones.
And many times, the drivers are breaking the law with children on-board. For Baltimore County mom Donna Beck, the law-breaking drivers are a major cause for concern, "You've got potentially 50 lives that you've just put in danger."
Chief Operating Officer for Baltimore City Public Schools
|"I think it's a benefit to us that you've notified us about this and we're going to certainly use it to our benefit as well as the citizens of Baltimore to make sure everyone is safe and everyone is held accountable."|
The danger is real and recognized with a citation. ABC2 News Investigators found hundreds of them issued to local bus drivers between January 2010 and this past June.
The citations, which were obtained through public information requests to both the Baltimore City and Baltimore County Public Schools Systems, point to alarming conduct by bus drivers.
According to records provided by Baltimore County schools, at least 99 camera citations were issued to public school bus drivers.
Of those, 19 were issued for red light violations. 80 citations were handed out for speeding, with 37 of those tickets issued specifically to drivers operating within a school zone.
Baltimore City School records show at least 74 camera citations were issued in the same time frame. 18 of those tickets were issued for red light camera violations while 56 buses were cited for speeding.
But those citations, which total more than $10,000 in fines paid by the individual system drivers, are only half the story.
Together Baltimore County and Baltimore City also pay more than 300 contracted drivers to transport their students.
Those companies are private entities and not required to supply their citation records to us, so we can't tell how many of them have broken the law. And we're not the only ones in the dark.
We asked James Mitcherling, the Director of the Baltimore County Public School System's Office of Transportation, "How would you be notified if there was a problem operator with a contracted driver that gets these red light tickets or speed tickets?" Mitcherling, in an on-camera interview, responded, "We would not be notified."
That's because in Baltimore County and Baltimore City, ABC2 News Investigators learned contractors aren't required to tell the districts when their drivers get these kinds of citations. It's simply not in their contracts.
When we asked about the lack of oversight for contracted drivers in September, Keith Scroggins, the Chief Operating Officer for Baltimore City Public Schools, said, "I think it's a benefit to us that you've notified us about this and we're going to certainly use it to our benefit as well as the citizens of Baltimore to make sure everyone is safe and everyone is held accountable."
It appears that accountability differs depending on your employer. Both districts tell us school system drivers get progressive discipline.
In Baltimore County, Mitcherling says that means a letter in a driver's file with the first citation as well as potential suspension and even termination if the violations continue.
And for some drivers, repeated violations have been found. ABC2 News Investigators spotted at least 17 repeat offenders in the Baltimore County records, including one bus, which was cited five times in three months.
Mitcherling told us he couldn't talk specifics but says disciplinary action has been taken in some cases, "I would not like to see one ticket from a bus driver or any other employee that drives a board owned vehicle or equipment. One is too many. We transport students and that's just not acceptable."
Scroggins has the same no tolerance attitude, although we know far less about the city's citations because they say they don't keep copies.
In response to our information request, the district could only supply us with a list of violations and a handful of tickets. We found at least 15 repeat offenders in the Baltimore City district list, including two buses that racked up six tickets each.
Although in response to our request for specifics on discipline, the district tells us it has "no documents to track the number of disciplinary actions" taken against its drivers, Scroggins admits there have been suspensions.
When it comes to contracted drivers who continue to rack up citations, Scroggins says they aren't notified, "I don't think we can require the contractors to let us know the disciplinary actions they take, but they will have to let us know when their drivers get red light tickets."
Contracted drivers may eventually have to report red light and speed tickets in Baltimore city and Baltimore County. Both districts tell us they plan to change standing contracts with the companies that supply them drivers.
Baltimore City's contract with its third party vendor is currently being re-negotiated according to Scroggins. Mitcherling says they hope to make an addendum to their current contract.
Changes to create language that would hopefully eliminate a double standard aren't necessary in some local districts.
Chris Carter, Transportation Supervisor for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, says, "A school bus driver in Anne Arundel County is a school bus driver."
Carter, who claims there have been no camera citations issued to any bus driver in the county, says all their drivers are held to the same standard, which means contractors have to report any moving violation just like the ones who work directly for the school system.
TICKETS FOR DISTRICT BUS DRIVERS
18 red light
19 red light
He explains, "For us to treat them any differently as it relates to what we expect from them, their training, their in-service work, I think we'd be doing our students an injustice."
In the end, it's the students moms and dads are worried about when they say those morning goodbyes. They feel the ride to school should be safe no matter who's driving the bus.
Kristy Knuppel knows the cameras certainly don't care either way, "They're a driver like everybody else. If they're speeding or going through a red light, cameras are going to take them as well."
ABC2 News also contacted the Maryland School Bus Contractors Association for comment.
Their representative sent us this statement,
While MSBCA does not represent each and every school bus contractor company in the State, we do represent a significant number of them, and of our membership one thing is certain:We are committed to the safe and efficient transportation of Maryland's most precious cargo.
We take this responsibility seriously,striving daily to improve the quality of pupil transportation throughout the State. As members of the industry, we see the business of pupil transportation changing daily.
New technologies are emerging regularly to help us further ensure the safety of the children we transport. We welcome such advancements – ranging from on-board video/audio systems to red light cameras – and the increased oversight and additional supervision they provide.