Lawmakers: if the bus stops, you should too

The Georgia Senate is wasting no time in trying to undo a change in law affecting school buses that police, prosecutors and school officials say is endangering children.

Last year, the General Assembly amended a law that has long required drivers in oncoming lanes to stop when they encounter a school bus loading or unloading children. The dozen words added to that law were ambiguous enough to produce contrary interpretations.

Legal counsel for lawmakers gave advice, ultimately referenced by then-Gov. Nathan Deal when he signed House Bill 978, that the language didn't undo the requirement that cars stop for kids. But a higher counsel, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, later contradicted that interpretation in an unofficial opinion in August that said cars no longer have to stop if the road is divided by a painted turn lane.

It has "caused a problem that has put a lot of our school-age children at risk," said Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, the author of a bill that seeks to erase that change.

Senate Bill 25 requires oncoming vehicles to stop unless there's a physical barrier dividing the roadway, such as a concrete median or a grass strip. Representatives of police, prosecutors and teachers testified for his bill during a brief hearing Wednesday of the Senate Public Safety Committee.

Fulton County Schools bus stops on Powers Ferry Road in Sandy Springs on Wednesday, May 23, 2018. A phrase added to a 15-page bill approved late in the Georgia legislative session last year has caused panic among officials responsible for getting children to and from school safely. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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The House of Representatives is taking up the issue, as well. Freshman lawmaker Ginny Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, filed House Bill 75 Monday, with the backing of several committee chairmen and Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton, the speaker pro-tempore. That bill also deletes the language from last year.

The 2018 amendment was added to a 15-page bill that focused on other issues, such as traffic cameras in school zones. The part about stopped buses said oncoming cars could pass them on a divided highway “including, but not limited to, a highway divided by a turn lane.”

At the very least, the resulting law change that took effect July 1 has confused drivers about the conditions that require them to stop, said Pat Schofill, director of pupil transportation for the Georgia Department of Education. Police in one county told him drivers have been passing buses from behind, even though the law only addressed oncoming traffic.

Bus drivers often complain about cars ignoring the law, he said, noting that in one survey 10,988 of them witnessed 7,465 illegal passes on one day. To underscore his point, he noted one such incident in October, when a boy in Colquitt County was killed as he crossed to a waiting school bus with his brother, who survived his own injuries. "We have lost one child" since the law changed, Schofill said. "It's something we need to address."

Before the committee unanimously approved his bill, Heath said whoever was responsible for tucking the dozen words into last year’s legislation isn’t speaking up.

"I thought someone would come forth and ask me why I'm messing with their language, but no one has come forth,” he said, “and I can honestly say there's no opposition."