Georgia’s top lawyer confirms fears about change to school bus law

A new legal opinion about changes to a law involving motorists and school buses affirms some officials’ fear of mayhem on the roads.

Just a dozen words in a new, 15-page law about school buses and traffic cameras appear to have undone a long-held safety mandate intended to protect children.

Until the law took effect on July 1, it was understood that vehicles had to stop when encountering a school bus in an oncoming lane.

But that rule is no longer in place when the opposing lanes are separated only by paint, says the unofficial opinion issued Monday by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr.

“Georgia law does not require a vehicle travelling on a three or five lane road divided by a center turn lane to stop for a school bus,” the opinion says.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed in May that Gov. Nathan Deal signed the legislation into law despite the objections of most of the state's school bus officials.

“We are gravely concerned for the safety of our students at their bus stops should this bill become law,” said an April letter to Deal from school transportation officials in 102 counties.

A legal scholar, a county sheriff and other officials who reviewed the new legal passage for the AJC in the spring agreed that the General Assembly probably had undone the long-standing roadway mandate intended to save children’s lives.

The new opinion confirms it. On Monday, R. Sam Ham, who is in charge of buses for Fulton County Schools, heard about it from the AJC and went online to read it.

“That’s exactly what I feared,” he said. “Now, you cannot depend on that stop arm.”

State school Superintendent Richard Woods had the same reaction, issuing a statement that the opinion ends the confusion and that the law could endanger students. “I will urge our state lawmakers to reverse this,” he said.

J. Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said the state’s sheriffs will convene around September to discuss new legislation. This will definitely be on their agenda, he said, adding that he was pretty sure there would be broad support behind any effort to undo the change.

Norris said at least one sheriff had expressed concern to him about mayhem and confusion with the new law, as some people observe the long-held stopping requirement while others do not, plowing into them. Besides the risk of physical harm, Norris wondered about consequences for motorists who stop because they think it’s still required.

“Is there some liability — civil and criminal — for stopping?”

T. Carlton Allen, executive director of the Georgia Association for Pupil Transportation, said Georgia is now out of sync with neighboring states, which could cause havoc when drivers from those states pass through Georgia. “They’re going to be totally confused because now our law is different from their law,” he said.

Under current safety rules, school bus routes are designed so children don’t have to cross multilane roads, but Allen said they do it anyway. The old law recognized children are unpredictable and caution is warranted when they’re near traffic, he said.

The changes were wrought by House Bill 978, a sprawling piece of legislation that also introduced, for the first time, the possibility of automated speed enforcement cameras on roadways. The cameras are restricted to school zones, hence the decision to merge the topic with school bus stop arms.

The legislation also reduced the financial penalty for illegally passing a stopped school bus. The penalty used to escalate with repeat offenses to as much as $1,000, but HB 978 dropped it to $250.

Much of the debate about the bill involved the speed-detection cameras, while video recordings show the bus-passing portion got far less attention.

At one hearing, the topic got all of 25 seconds.

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