Legislators Revisit School Bus Law

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So many motorists are ignoring a new law designed to keep children safe as they scamper on and off their school buses that the state Legislature is considering a move to gut the statute.

That attempt is raising the anger of the law's supporters, who argue that it has not been given a chance to work.

The law took effect in January, when California joined every other state in the nation in requiring that school bus drivers turn on blinking red lights each time they load and unload young passengers.

Although compliance is improving, many motorists continue to disregard the new rule, zipping around buses and endangering unsuspecting children. Some who comply have been rear-ended, while others have been subjected to angry verbal assaults and gestures from hurrying commuters. School bus drivers have also experienced their share of abuse.

"People get mad, they flip me off, they honk their horns, they go into that center suicide lane to pass me," said Deborah Martin, who shuttles children in the Anaheim City School District and supports the new law. "It's almost like road rage around here."

A coalition of educators and private school bus operators are asking the Legislature to roll back key provisions of the new safety rule. The Assembly overwhelmingly approved a bill last month to provide wide-ranging exemptions to the law. Capitol insiders say that it appears to be headed toward victory in the Senate, where a key committee is scheduled to vote on the measure today.

Those supporting the bill say there is no need for flashing lights near traffic signals or schools or on major multilane roads. Instead, they say, bus warning lights should be saved for only the most dangerous situations, such as when a driver is escorting children across a street. Otherwise, they say, overwrought motorists simply ignore the red blinkers and speed by.

"They get desensitized to the flashing lights," said John Green, the state Education Department's transportation manager. "It's like driving on any big city street with hundreds of neon signs. After a while, you don't see any of them."

The effort to overturn the new law has drawn howls of protest from Tom Lanni, who battled three years to get it on the books after his son, Tommy, was killed at a school bus stop in Laguna Niguel.

He says California should give the new law a fair chance to work.

"The reality is, this law is going to save lives," Lanni said. "If the lights come on and traffic stops, there's a low probability a child will be killed."

There are signs the driving public is beginning to catch on. Although bus drivers report that many cars still roar by them at stops, state authorities say they have heard no reports of children being killed in accidents in which bus drivers have turned on warning lights.

The law, named after Lanni's son, also has prodded districts to move bus stops off busy thoroughfares wherever possible.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, where 70,000 children are ferried each day by 2,100 buses, many stops were shifted onto side streets in the weeks before the law went into effect, said Rick Boull't, the district's deputy transportation director.

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Even before the Lanni law went into effect, California motorists were required to stop when a school bus flashed its red warning lights. But the lights were rarely used. Red blinkers were required only when a driver was shepherding children across a street.

Tommy Lanni's death changed all that. In 1994, the 7-year-old boy was new to town and riding the school bus for the first time. Confused, he jumped off at the wrong stop. As the first-grader darted in front of the bus to cross a busy street, he was struck by a pickup truck and killed. The bus driver was unaware that the boy would try to cross and didn't have his red lights flashing.

Devastated by the death, the boy's father and mother asked the Legislature to prevent such a tragedy from happening to someone else, pushing for the use of flashing lights at every school bus stop. They reasoned that children can be unpredictable, particularly in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere after school, and that motorists need a reminder to take care around a school bus.

Bus operators, the state schools department and a few districts disagreed, saying that the measure could actually increase risks to children and motorists.

"It was not well thought-out," said Ron Kinney, state school transportation chief for Laidlaw Transit Inc., a private busing firm.

When the new law went into effect Jan. 1, the driving public was nearly clueless. "There was," Green said, "wholesale disregard for the lights."

Police and the Highway Patrol first issued warnings to offending motorists, and then handed out tickets for more than $250 each.

"In the beginning, our bus drivers were trying to write down license numbers of cars that ignored their lights," said Betty Manwill, the Irvine Unified School District's transportation director. "But there were so many, I said just keep a tally of the number of cars so we could get a feel for it."

The scofflaw problem was exactly what opponents of the Lanni law expected. This year, they launched a counterattack through a bill by Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin (D-Duncan Mills) that lays down broad exemptions for use of the warning lights.

Lanni doesn't have a problem with several of the exemptions, including eliminating the use of red flashing lights in front of schools. He also agrees that the lights shouldn't be required when a driver has to take several minutes to help a disabled student onto a bus.

But two exemptions, Lanni said, would neuter the law, particularly as it applies in his own community.

One exemption prohibits use of the blinkers within 200 feet of a signal light. Another would exempt the lights on any high-speed road with two or more lanes in each direction.

"It's sort of like death by 1,000 cuts," Lanni said. "The net effect of those two exemptions would eliminate the warning lights at almost every bus stop in the city I live in."

Multilane parkways crisscross Laguna Niguel, and school buses often stop near traffic signals.

Lanni contends that school districts and private bus firms want to change the law mostly because of liability concerns. In particular, a situation in which a child is hit when a bus driver forgets to turn on the flashing lights could lead to a lawsuit.

But Green dismissed such arguments, insisting that opponents of the Lanni law are motivated by a desire to protect children.

"When motorists see the lights and no one is crossing the roadway they say to themselves, 'Why do I have to stop? There's no danger here,' " Green said.

"Our concern is they'll blow through a red flashing light when the bus driver is trying to get some kids across the street," he said.

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Green and others also argue that California's school buses have been among the safest in the nation. In the last 20 years, there have been eight schoolchildren killed near school buses, state officials say. That, he said, is less than in New York and several other big states that already required flashing red lights at all stops.

Lanni said such statistics are misleading, noting that police did not classify his own son's death as a bus-related accident. Lanni said that 2,024 pedestrians between the ages 5 and 14 were killed or injured statewide in 1996. Many of those, he reasons, must have occurred around school buses but weren't counted because of the narrow definition used by law enforcement officers.

Assemblyman Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside), who carried the bill for Lanni, rejects suggestions that the use of blinkers at every stop desensitizes motorists. The way it was before, he argues, drivers never knew when a school bus might flash the warning lights.

If anything, some say, the law may be starting to work.

Officials at the California Highway Patrol say they are beginning to notice a slight drop in violations. They also say the number of accidents near school buses fell from 84 in March to 44 in April and 47 in May.

Many school bus drivers, meanwhile, have taken pains to make life easier for motorists trailing in their wake. They typically pull over, let cars by and turn on the red lights when traffic has cleared.

Despite such efforts, inconvenience is almost inevitable. Anaheim driver Martin said it is worth it.

"At the end of the day, the kids are hyper, and we're dropping them sometimes on major highways with traffic just barreling by," she said. "Someone in a car is never going to see some kid who runs in front of my bus. Even if it's just one life saved, I think stopping traffic for a few moments is worth it."

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