Change in law regarding school buses concerns officials

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A change in Georgia law regarding school buses that took effect in July has some school officials concerned for their students' safety.

House Bill 978, signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal in May, includes a section that says vehicles driving on a three-lane or five-lane road that's divided by a center turn lane do not need to stop for buses that are loading or unloading on the other side of the roadway.

According to State School Superintendent Richard Woods, there had been "a point of confusion since HB 978 was signed" about the exact definition of a divided highway — whether a turn lane could be viewed as the same kind of median as a physical barrier or a strip of grass — and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr was asked for a clarification, which he issued three weeks ago. 

After considering several points regarding the definition in the original statute and the amended one, the attorney general concluded that "Georgia law does not require a vehicle traveling on a three- or five-lane road divided by a center turn lane to stop for a school bus that is stopped on the opposite side of the road with its visual signals engaged."

He also asked drivers to remain vigilant when it comes to road safety, particularly around schools.  

“With school starting and Georgia law changing, it is important that we remain focused on keeping Georgia's children safe on and around school buses," he said in a press release. "We urge all motorists in Georgia to make good choices and proceed with the extreme caution when near school buses and stops as well as school safety zones.”

Woods issued a statement expressing his concerns for the safety of the state's bus riders. 

"In my role as leader of the Georgia Department of Education, I maintain my position that this change in law does not reflect best practices to ensure student safety and could endanger Georgia’s kids as they travel to and from school," he said. "In the upcoming legislative session, I will urge our state lawmakers to reverse this change. We cannot put our students’ safety at risk.”

Woods also said the GaDOE will "continue to emphasize safe loading and unloading practices at school bus stops" to its transportation personnel.

"More than ever, students need to be reminded they should never cross more than two lanes of traffic, including the lane occupied by the bus, at a school bus stop," he said.

The change also is cause for concern for Bartow County's two school superintendents.

“We have serious concerns about the change to HB 978, even though we do not allow students to cross the road where a turn lane divides the lanes of traffic," Bartow County Superintendent Dr. Phillip Page said. "Anytime a school bus is stopped loading or unloading students, and traffic is still moving, this creates a major safety concern for our students and drivers.”

Cartersville City Superintendent Dr. Marc Feuerbach said the interpretation of the law "could be confusing and could potentially impact student safety."

"However, we will continue to encourage our drivers and students to be cautious and maintain safety procedures at all times," he said.