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California and the West

Legislators Revisit School Bus Law

Safety: Opponents say regulation ordering drivers to flash lights as students get on and off vehicles is being ignored and causes accidents. Backers say it just needs more time to catch on.

June 30, 1998|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — 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.

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