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Why school bus riders may not be as safe this year
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Hall County School District bus driver Richard Smallwood checks lights on his bus Monday, Aug. 6, 2018, at the district's bus yard in preparation for the first day of school Tuesday. - photo by Scott Rogers

More motorists may be zipping by school buses stopped to pick up or drop off students thanks to a change in state law earlier this year.

And it’s got transportation and public safety officials on the lookout as the academic year begins for the Hall County School District on Tuesday, Aug. 7, and for Gainesville City Schools on Wednesday, Aug. 8.

Previously, motorists traveling in the opposite direction of a school bus along a four-lane roadway with a median (grass, concrete, etc.) were not required to stop. But that was the only exception.  

Now, if that road has a center turn lane dividing the four lanes, motorists can continue driving.

“That would qualify as a barrier,” said Clay Hobbs, transportation director for Hall County Schools. “I did not agree with (the change).”

Neither did most school transportation leaders.

When to stop for school buses

  • Two-lane roadway: When school bus stops for passengers, ALL traffic from both directions must stop.

  • Two-lane roadway with a center turning lane: When school bus stops for passengers, ALL traffic from both directions must stop.

  • Four-lane roadway without a median separation: When school bus stops for passengers, ALL traffic from both directions must stop.

  • Divided highway of four lanes or more with a median separation or center turning lane: When school bus stops for passengers, only traffic following the bus must stop.

Source: Georgia Department of Administrative Services

In fact, the Georgia Association for Pupil Transportation wrote to Gov. Nathan Deal in April to “sound the alarm” on the dangers this change might create.

“If signed into law (the bill) will create unsafe bus stops in our state,” the letter, authored by executive director T. Carlton Allen, stated. “We are gravely concerned for the safety of our students …”

The change in law could result in more accidents, unsafe bus stops and even litigation, GAPT leaders said.

The law was signed and took effect July 1.

The change was part of broader legislation that included capping fines for illegally passing a school bus at $250 per instance. It also gave local governments the authority to establish cameras in school zones to catch speeders.

All traffic moving in the same direction, or following the bus, must still stop regardless of the size of the road or whether medians, turn lanes or some other divider exists.

Hobbs said the change regarding turn lanes serving as medians adds undue confusion and ambiguity to the law and places students in jeopardy.

Hobbs said he has addressed the change with his staff of bus drivers, including showing which routes might be most affected.

“We pointed that out to the drivers and just made sure they understood,” he added.

Jerry Castleberry, transportation director for Gainesville City Schools, said he’s concerned “simply because there’s no physical barrier (in a turn lane) to get a driver’s attention.”

Students are prohibited from crossing four-lane highways when entering or exiting a school bus.

Now, bus routes along Thompson Bridge Road, for example, could become more dangerous, Castleberry said.

There doesn’t seem to have been “a lot of thought put into it,” he added of the change in the law.

Sgt. Kevin Holbrook, spokesman for the Gainesville Police Department, said another road in the city that could become dangerous for students getting on and off the bus is Park Hill Drive.

With several apartment complexes along that four-lane road with a center turn lane down the middle, as well as nearby convenience stores and restaurants, the prospect of students crossing while motorists in the opposite direction are moving grows likelier, Holbrook said.

“We give legislative updates to our patrol officers,” he added, so that they are aware.