Why a small change in law could create danger for students

A dozen words have stirred panic among the people responsible for keeping Georgia children safe when they’re going to and from school.

A phrase that state lawmakers inserted into a 15-page traffic measure in the waning days of this year’s legislative session will muddy the law about stopping for school buses while they’re loading and unloading, school officials warn.

“We are gravely concerned for the safety of our students at their bus stops should this bill become law,” said an April letter to Gov. Nathan Deal from school transportation officials from 102 counties. The letter asked the governor to veto the bill, but he signed it, and it will take effect July 1.

The current law says oncoming drivers must stop for school buses when their red lights are signaling except on separated roadways and controlled-access highways.

Rep. Chad Nimmer, R-Blackshear, the sponsor of House Bill 978, said people had complained that cars were stopping on divided highways. He wanted to clarify that they do not need to and made it explicit in his bill, which was primarily about allowing automated speed-detection cameras near schools.

Then, in a hearing that lasted 25 seconds, a Senate committee added the phrase causing the consternation: It says oncoming cars may pass a stopped bus on a divided highway "including, but not limited to, a highway divided by a turn lane."

Does that mean oncoming cars no longer have to stop on a highway divided only by a turn lane?

Lawmakers say that was not their intent, but, T. Carlton Allen, the executive director of the Georgia Association for Pupil Transportation, which called for the veto, said his members read it that way.

“We’re just going to confuse the public because there will be some people stopping for a bus and some people going by,” he said, “and that’s just going to cause more accidents.”

When Deal’s office was asked whether the governor was unconvinced by their interpretation, a spokeswoman replied with an email that contained two attached letters, one from a bicycle advocacy group in favor of the speed camera part of the bill and another from a legal counsel to the legislature.

The counselor’s opinion attempts to clarify the effect of the legislation. It says some type of barrier like a “shoulder or intervening space” between oncoming roadways “would still seem to be required” for a car to pass a loading or unloading bus, and this “would not seem to effect a substantive change from current law.”

But “seem to” isn’t a great bet in a court of law, where legislation gets a reality check.

Megan E. Boyd, who teaches legal writing at Georgia State University’s college of law, read the legislation for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was awkwardly drafted, she said, so some judges might see it as eliminating the mandate to stop on roads that are divided only by a turning lane.

“It does create additional ambiguity, and it’s definitely susceptible to challenge,” she said.

Sheriff Barry Babb of Fayette County mocked the qualifying language in the counselor’s opinion. “We live by two words in court,” he said, “and that’s ‘reasonable doubt.’” He predicted lawsuits will stem from the new law, brought either by someone charged for blowing past a bus or by someone who hits a car that was stopped for one. The resulting court decisions might undermine the stopping requirement, he said. Before that happens, he said, local prosecutors may decide they will no longer be able to bring successful cases against violators, effectively ending enforcement.

When laws get confusing, drivers get indecisive, and that can cause collisions, he said. “And you’ve got kids out there.”

The Fulton County Schools transportation office says it is awaiting clarification from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

GOHS declined to comment, saying director Harris Blackwood believes the Georgia Department of Education “is seeking clarification on this matter.”

Yet the DOE says it is “waiting to hear if there’s clarification from others,” including the state Attorney General’s Office. The AG’s Office said it provided “informal legal advice” to the DOE that was considered attorney-client privilege and therefore couldn’t be released. The DOE won’t reveal that advice “unless and until the AG’s office issues an official opinion.”

Even with the current law, students getting on and off buses have been killed. Seven students died in Georgia over a four-year period starting in the fall of 2010, according to an annual report compiled by the Kansas State Department of Education. There were no fatalities the following three years. The report for the current school year isn't out yet, but the AJC reported in February about the death of an 8-year-old girl who was in a crosswalk with her mother going to a DeKalb County school bus.

Passing stopped buses continues to be a significant problem. Last year, 12,229 Georgia bus drivers reported 7,945 illegal passes on one day, a survey found.

Mandi Call of Fayette County has two teenagers able to drive, and thinks the current law is easy to explain: if there’s a barrier between the car and the bus, don’t stop, but if there isn’t, then stop. She also has a first grader who rides the bus to school, and thinks the new law is confusing and will make it more dangerous for him when he’s getting on and off a bus.

She used to live in Cobb County, near where Karla Campos, 5, was killed by a driver who didn't stop for a bus. This galvanized her and another woman to establish Operation Stop Arm. Within two years, they got the Georgia General Assembly to pass a law allowing cameras on school buses to enforce the no-passing law. That 2011 law established an escalating fine that goes as high as $1,000.

HB 978 drops the penalty to $250.

“What was the motivation? All I can think of is somebody got mad that they got a ticket,” Call said.

She said she’ll be pushing lawmakers to undo these changes. The Georgia PTA will be doing the same, said Tyler Barr, the president. The group will tell parents this summer to warn their children that crossing the roads will be more dangerous.

“I hope that nothing serious happens and that we don’t have an incident before this is looked at,” Barr said.

Another author of the new law, Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, sponsored identical legislation, Senate Bill 435, that was overlaid on Nimmer's bill. He said the intent was to require bus drivers to drop children on the side of the road where they live, something the DOE says it "always" instructs school leaders and bus drivers to do.

The part about the divided highway and turning lane was worked out behind closed doors by senators and the legal counsel. Later, when the Senate Public Safety Committee approved Beach's bill at a public hearing, the lawmakers spent about two minutes discussing the turn-lane wording.

Beach couldn’t recall details about that hearing or the amendment, but said “safety was the intent the whole time.” He said the fine was reduced because of the disparity between the cost of a first offense, $300, and the $1,000 cost of a third offense. The senators agreed $250 was enough to get drivers’ attention, he said.

But he acknowledged the confusion about when to stop for a bus.

“Maybe we need to go back and tweak that,” he said.