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School Bus Tragedy Can Lead to Reform : * Boy’s Death Shows Need to Require Flashing Red Lights

Seven-year-old Thomas Lanni of Laguna Niguel was struck and killed by a pickup truck while crossing a street after a school bus had dropped him off. A simple change, requiring buses to flash their red lights whenever stopping to discharge passengers, can reduce the likelihood of similar tragedies.

The school bus is a fixture of suburbia, an essential part of the machinery that keeps households running. In most families, both parents work and the bus is needed to get children to and from school--the institution that is often the major reason families moved to their particular communities. A few extra minutes commuting to and from the job means nothing to parents convinced their children’s school is better than those elsewhere. As for transportation, well, whoever thinks much about the school bus? There are no icy roads with which to contend, no tornadoes. Put the boys and girls on the bus and send them off to school.

But precisely because there is so much at stake in the use of buses, it is essential that the public have confidence in basic traffic safety procedures. Lanni and his family moved to Orange County from New York--a state which, by the way, does require public school buses to flash red lights when stopped regardless of the situation--only a week before the accident. The boy rode the bus for the first time on the day of the accident. His mother said the bus driver promised to take care of him after she explained he was a newcomer and unfamiliar with the area. For whatever reason, that afternoon he got off the bus at a stop down the hill from where his mother was waiting. Investigators said the pickup truck driver was within the speed limit when he struck the youngster as he passed the stopped school bus, which was not operating its flashing lights.

The Sheriff’s Department said that criminal charges were not warranted, but referred the matter to the district attorney for investigation of possible violations of the motor vehicle code. But more should come of this tragedy by way of reform than whatever the conclusions of the investigation of a traffic accident.

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One obvious lesson for all motorists is that caution is needed when coming upon a stopped school bus. Children are unpredictable; they appear unexpectedly in the road. One question for investigators is why the red lights on the bus were not in fact flashing. That would have been an even more powerful deterrent to other drivers; state law requires that cars halt when they see a school bus with flashing lights.

The Capistrano Unified School District, which operated the bus, said neither it nor the driver knew that students crossed the street there. But parents said other children had been exiting the bus and crossing that street for months. Even if they crossed behind the bus, it seems likely a driver would have at some time looked in his rear view mirror and seen them crossing. Under the circumstances, it is not too much to suggest that this was an accident waiting to happen.

If state law required flashing lights--whether or not students were crossing--one variable would be removed. The state Department of Education acknowledges that most other states require the use of flashing lights whenever the bus stops to let children on or off, even if they are not crossing a street.

California should change the motor vehicle code to adopt that procedure. It seems unacceptable that it actually bars use of flashing lights unless children must cross the street to get on or off. Drivers behind the school bus will be delayed, but there is no comparison between an extra minute or two and the life of a child.


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