When the Anne Arundel County Council unanimously passed a school bus camera law on February 3, they didn’t have to go far to put a face to the issue. Students across the county have been put at risk by drivers cruising past the red flashing lights and extended signs.
Severna Park High School sophomore Allie Johnson was one of those students. She had just exited her bus on Truckhouse Road on October 24, 2019 when an oncoming car hit her. The day is still fresh in the mind of Allie’s mom, Stefanie Johnson.
“My husband and I both felt complete terror,” Stefanie said. “No one thinks they will get a phone call about their child like that. It is terrifying and frightening not knowing what you’re about to see going to an accident site knowing your child has been hit by a car, being thrown in the air.”
Some buses currently have cameras on the inside, but the new law designates that cameras be placed on the stop arms that extend out from the bus.
Peter Baron, director of government relations for County Executive Steuart Pittman’s administration, said it was no coincidence that this was Pittman’s first proposed bill of 2020.
“We’ve all seen it happen, right. Somebody is impatient while a school bus is stopped and goes past it … It’s terrifying,” Baron said. “The bill won’t stop people from being reckless and irresponsible, but it will allow us to find them and deter them and hopefully lessen this.”
According to the Anne Arundel County Police Department, there were 88 cases where drivers failed to stop in 2019 and 13 cases where drivers failed to remain stopped. Those numbers were down from 2018 when 134 drivers failed to stop and 14 did not remain stopped.
Montgomery County has passed similar legislation, with great impact. In July 2019, Montgomery County Police Department Assistant Chief David Anderson emphasized that point to the Montgomery County Council.
“Unfortunately we’ve had some very high-profile criminal acts with students as victims, and this camera system … captured those acts and are going to put people in prison for victimizing children,” Anderson said.
When caught on camera, motorists can be imposed with civil fine of $250. Drivers pulled over by police officers after passing school buses can pay up to $500 under Maryland law, according to Major Ross Passman of the Anne Arundel County Police Department.
No amount of money can make up for the harm done to Allie Johnson, but Allie is happy to see positive changes that may keep another student from being put in danger.
Allie is currently taking two classes a day at school and receiving home health teaching. According to Stefanie, Allie has several severe injuries from the accident.
“One current obstacle is daily debilitating headaches,” Stefanie said. “It limits her on school and everyday activities. Allie is 16 and should be able to enjoy time with friends and start driving; this accident has changed that completely for her. She can’t think about driving or do fun outings if she can’t get through a day without a severe headache and constant doctor appointments. Allie was a normal teenager just getting off the bus to go home, and in an instant, it has changed her and our families lives forever.”
For the seven-member Anne Arundel County Council, there was no debate. The cameras offer additional safety measures while accruing no extra cost to taxpayers.
“The company owns the equipment — they install it, they calibrate it, they monitor it, they provide the feeds,” said Alex Szachnowicz, chief operating officer for Anne Arundel County Public Schools. “They will also provide expert witness testimony should a matter go to trial and the veracity of the equipment on the calibration needs to be questioned.”
Bill 1-20 was signed into law by Pittman on February 14, and from that date, it has 45 days before going into effect.
“Our hope is if drivers that pass stopped school busses are heavily fined, it will make drivers think twice about that decision and have drivers take that decision more seriously,” Stefanie said.