NMA E-Newsletter #155: The Numbers Tell The Story… Again

By John Bowman, NMA Communications Director

In last week’s E-newsletter (#154, Will We Never Learn?), we dug into the numbers behind the NTSB’s proposed ban on the use of all portable electronic devices while driving. Let’s try the same approach with another issue that’s popping up frequently: the use of so-called stop-arm cameras on school buses.

These systems are designed to photograph drivers who pass by stopped school buses while they load or unload children. Several states, including Virginia, Maryland, New York and Connecticut, have recently passed legislation enabling school districts to pursue stop-arm camera programs.

Montgomery County, Maryland has been testing the cameras for more than a year and is expected to deploy them fleet-wide in January. A recent article in support of the initiative goes to great lengths to justify the cameras based on these impressive numbers:

  • 1,273 schools buses transporting 96,000 students every day
  • 100,000 fleet miles traveled per day, the equivalent to four trips around the earth
  • 19 million fleet miles traveled per year, nearly the distance to Venus

So, how many Montgomery County school children were killed by careless motorists speeding by school buses in 2009? None, according to NHTSA. Overall, there were two school bus-related pedestrian fatalities in Maryland in 2009, but those were caused by the bus. The article doesn’t mention that.

Nationally, NHTSA fatality numbers for school bus/pedestrian fatalities exhibit a similar pattern over the last few years:

Pedestrian Fatalities and Cause
Year Other Vehicles Bus Total
2009 8 13 21
2008 1 20 21
2007 2 16 18
2006 3 19 22
Total 14 68 82

So, from 2006-2009, 83 percent of school bus/pedestrian fatalities were caused by the bus.

Now, as a parent of two kids who ride the school bus every day, I’m concerned with my children’s safety, and I’m sympathetic to all those affected by these tragedies. But perhaps we should be paying more attention to the level of training and qualifications of those we entrust to drive our children those millions of miles every year.

But that may foil the plans of the camera companies, who are aggressively promoting their systems, as well as politicians who eagerly adopt any camera-based enforcement system, no matter how misguided or ineffective.

Speaking of effectiveness, we’ve seen little in the way of evidence that stop-arm cameras reduce injuries or violations. A 2008 pilot study from the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) concluded that the “availability and performance of these systems in reducing stop-arm violations and improving school bus safety is still relatively unknown.”

The dynamics involved here are akin to those with other camera-based enforcement systems. Seeing an opportunity for financial gain, camera companies collude with officials to implement feckless photo enforcement programs through misdirection and distortion of the facts. Unfortunately, they won’t result in improved safety for our children, only additional persecution of motorists.

The TTI study recommends continued evaluation of enforcement, engineering and educational components. We agree. But since the vast majority of these accidents are caused by the buses themselves, we need to focus there to have the greatest impact on safety.

Since traffic laws regarding school buses vary by state, we recommend checking out a source like this site from Justin Jih, a NMA Expert on these issues. (Note: Access to NMA Experts in many traffic-related areas is a free service to Supporting Members of the NMA.)

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