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Gridlock Guy: A second semester refresher on school bus passing law

As pellets of information whiz by our eyes simultaneously and at breakneck speed, retaining even just the most important bits becomes difficult. The fact that most of this information resides within a few clicks or thumb flicks makes us less reliant on our ability to remember. The speed of the news cycle pushes stories in and out of sight so quickly that we forget which celebrities died or that such-and-such politician had the exact opposite stance just two months ago. This same cognitive sloppiness applies not just to citizens trying to follow traffic laws, but also sometimes to the agencies tasked with enforcing them.

» RELATED: What Georgia law says you should do when a school bus stops

Rules regarding school bus safety changed on both the user and the enforcement sides on July 1, 2018 in Georgia. House Bill 978 began allowing agencies to catch school-zone speeders with cameras on buses, a provision met with heavy resistance. The compromise that allowed this automated enforcement loosened the restrictions on when vehicles can pass stopped buses in the opposite direction.

The revised law eliminates the requirement of a raised or divided median for oncoming vehicles to be able to pass stopped school buses that are loading or unloading. The compromise eases the “median restriction” to including a turn lane. In other words, a turn lane now counts as a dividing median for the purposes of oncoming vehicles being able to advance past a bus in loading mode.

As we talked about in an August Gridlock Guy column on the issue, this new freedom is not one motorists should take lightly. Sure, buses only unload students on the same side of the road as bus stops. But drivers in all surrounding areas should use absolute caution. One small distraction could cause an error that puts our most precious citizens in danger. And any relaxation in bus-passing does not change the restriction on speeding. Remember how easy speeding is to enforce under this new law.

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

But enforcement is only as smooth as the enforcers. A friend who will go unnamed told me that they got an automated ticket for passing a stopped bus in the opposite direction — when they had a turn lane in between them. One of the new automated cameras caught her and the jurisdiction mailed her the ticket. She went to court to fight the ticket and actually used the aforementioned August Gridlock Guy column as proof that she did not break the law. The judge threw out the ticket. Another unnamed friend got a similar ticket and wasn’t so lucky and had to pay. So the police and courts need to get on the same page as the law.

Motorists do also. A former WSB co-worker, Noelle Stettner, emailed the WSB 24-Hour Traffic Center last month with the opposite problem. She said she observes motorists on Highway 9 in Roswell and Sandy Springs stopping when they do not have to. They either are not aware of their new freedom or they are afraid to pass someone else that has erroneously stopped. Stettner wasn’t just annoyed by the unnecessary stopping, but legitimately concerned that stopping in error could increase rear-end crashes. An increase of crashes in a sensitive zone near a bus is never a good thing.

The biggest ambiguity in the new law about passing school buses is not in the language itself. The law allows for oncoming vehicles to pass stopped buses, as long as there is at least a turn lane separating the two sides of the road. Period. The ambiguity therein is in how well both motorists and law enforcement are aware of the rule. If you get a ticket in error, look up the bill (or, apparently, this column) and go to court and plead your case. And make sure you aren’t speeding, or the case is moot anyway. 

» RELATED: Why a small change in Georgia law could create danger for students

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.

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