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Key Legislators Not Ready to Declare School Bus Law a Casualty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state Senate committee on Tuesday criticized efforts to undercut a 6-month-old law intended to keep schoolchildren safe as they get on and off school buses.

The new law, which requires that school bus drivers turn on blinking red lights at every stop, has been ignored by many California motorists and blasted by foes who say it actually puts children in more danger.

But several lawmakers on the Senate Transportation Committee seemed inclined to give the law more time.

Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) said the gripes about the law “sound like the same litany of complaints” voiced last year when the Legislature approved the new rule, which took effect Jan. 1. “The argument for giving this law a chance to me seems very compelling.”

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The committee Tuesday put off a vote on a bill by Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin (D-Duncans Mills) that threatened to gut the school bus law. Sen. Quentin Kopp, the San Francisco independent who chairs the committee, asked Strom-Martin to return in a few weeks with a narrowed version of her bill, which was overwhelmingly approved in the Assembly in May.

While the fight isn’t over, it was at least a partial victory for the family of Tommy Lanni, the 7-year-old boy killed in 1994 at a school bus stop in Laguna Niguel. Unaware that the boy would attempt to cross the street, the bus driver had not turned on the blinking lights.

His parents, Tom and Barbara Lanni, were the force behind a push last year for the law, which is named after the boy.

“The law is still there, but we still have a fight,” Barbara Lanni said. Her husband added, “Hopefully, logical and rational minds will prevail in this.”

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Critics of the Lanni law--among them state education officials, several school districts and private school bus operators--contend it actually does more harm than good.

They say the warning lights should be saved for the most dangerous situations, such as when a driver is escorting children across a street. Otherwise, they say, harried motorists simply ignore the red blinkers and speed by, instead of stopping, as the law requires.

Critics of the law say California has for years enjoyed one of the best school bus safety records of any major state. It was, however, the only one that didn’t require use of the warning lights at every stop.

Strom-Martin said her bill is intended merely as “cleanup” legislation to “prevent unintended consequences” that might put children in more danger.

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She said her office and those of other state lawmakers have been inundated by telephone calls from motorists, school officials and parents. Many, she said, have relayed stories of motorists slamming on their brakes and nearly spinning out of control after coming upon a stopped bus.

State officials say no children have been reported killed or injured because of the law, but numerous collisions have occurred throughout California near stopped buses. Many motorists continue to ignore the rule and zip around buses at stops, though compliance has increased since police began issuing a raft of tickets to violators.

Strom-Martin’s bill would have exempted use of the flashing lights on major multilane thoroughfares where high speeds prevail, within 200 feet of traffic signals and on icy, snowy roads. It also would exempt the blinkers when the buses are disabled, on outings, when a pupil requires special assistance to get on or off, and at schools, where the blinking lights can tie up traffic.

The Lannis said they did not have problems with several of the exemptions, but they believe that any attempt to prohibit the lights on multilane roads or near signals would undercut the intent of the law. If those two provisions were in place, Tom Lanni said, nearly all the bus stops in his city would be exempted.

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“It would be nothing less than the repeal of the law we put through last year,” he said.


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