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Driver's Ed. | FIRST PERSON

Stop, Look, Listen: Lesson of New School Bus Law

It's more complicated than this, but basically drivers going the opposite direction also have to stop when lights flash.

October 29, 1998|MEGHAN O'DELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I see a school bus these days, I get tense. My hands clench the steering wheel, palms sweating, as I look in every direction. Questions pour into my mind: Are the bus lights flashing? Is there a police car lurking around the corner? Do I pull over? Is this a divided highway?

The consequences of my previous run-in with a school bus have made me much more aware of the catches and rules of California's school bus law.

Gov. Pete Wilson recently vetoed proposed changes to the 10-month-old law that would have made it a whole lot less confusing. So it is here to stay, and many drivers still don't know about it. But you should be aware, or you might have to pay for your lack of information--as I did.

It was late spring, a delightful 80-degree day with a breeze cooling the air as I drove along in my '65 Mustang, windows down and music blasting. As I glided down the road, I could only think, "It's great to be alive."

What I didn't know was that my fate as a carefree teenage driver was in great danger. I was about to get busted.

As I glanced in my rearview mirror, I saw the formidable flash of red and blue lights--the two colors that strike fear into the hearts of motorists. My stomach sank to my feet as I quickly looked at the speedometer. What could be wrong? I was driving past a school, going 25. What law was I violating?

Then came a voice from the patrol car's speaker: "Please pull to the side of the road."

I sighed, muttered a few inappropriate words and stopped at the curb. The policeman lumbered out of his Doommobile and ambled toward me as I prepared the necessities--license, registration and an irresistible (I hoped) look of innocence.

"Do you know why I pulled you over, Miss?"

"No, I don't. I know I wasn't speeding." I gave him an angelic wide-eyed stare.

"Well, Miss, it's the law to pull over when a school bus is flashing its red lights."

What? What law? Why wasn't I aware of this law?

"Um, I was on the other side of the road."

"The law changed," he intoned. "You should know by now that it pertains to both lanes of traffic."

"This is ludicrous," I thought. "How am I supposed to watch the other side of the road from the one I'm driving on?"

But what I said was, "Gee, I wasn't aware that was the law."

I refrained from saying "sir" or "officer." I can't stand to give them the satisfaction of knowing they are one up on me. I also refrained from crying. It's a method that has gotten a few of my friends out of tickets, but it's the principle of the thing. Besides, the wide-eyed cute look didn't work.

The policeman spent half an hour writing up my citation, a.k.a. my ticket to manual labor.

*

In case you aren't that familiar with the new school bus law, here's a little background:

It's called the Thomas Edward Lanni Act and it has been in effect since January. Before then, drivers had to stop when they came up behind a bus with flashing red lights.

The new law, named after a child killed at a school bus stop in Laguna Niguel, requires drivers to stop even when they are on the opposite side of the road, heading toward the bus, as I was. But you don't have to stop if you are on the opposite side of a divided highway, defined as a street with a center divider at least 2 feet wide. It gets trickier--a double set of double-yellow lines also counts as a divider, even if it is less than 2 feet wide. Things get even more confusing if a bus stops at an intersection and the light is green. Do you obey the red flashing bus lights and stop, or the green traffic light and go? (The traffic light is supposed to win in this situation.)

News stories keep popping up about confusion over the law. Many drivers ignore it, and those who do comply are often rear-ended. State officials report that since the law went into effect, more than 200 accidents statewide have occurred when drivers stopped for a bus, often at a blind corner, and were hit by the car behind them.

No one wants to see a child get hurt, so it's hard to argue that drivers shouldn't stop, but maybe they shouldn't have to stop in all situations. In my case, the school was a middle school and the passengers were getting on the bus. The odds of one of them darting across the street seem slim.

*

But I got ticketed, and my parents expect me to pay for my mistakes--literally. So I knew I would be held responsible for paying the ticket and for the inevitable insurance increase. And I also knew, as I sat there in my car, that I only had a dollar to my name, and I owed that much to a friend.

To answer my mother's persistent question of "How much is this going to cost?" I talked to a law enforcement instructor at school the next week. He blithely told me I was facing a $400 ticket.

"Don't even bother going to court with this," I was informed. "Bus tickets are like DUIs. The judge doesn't care why--there's no way out."

I cut a deal with my dad, agreeing to find a job and repay him as fast as possible if he'd pay the fine, which, indeed, was $400.

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