In the past, we've discussed liability for bus drivers who hit children that are loading or unloading from school buses. In reviewing that article, it became apparent that we missed one important area of discussion.
While it should be fairly obviously that people who run stops signs are liable for the damage they cause when they strike another vehicle, bicyclist, or pedestrian, it seems that some folks need to be reminded of that fact. Of course, I'm not talking about the stops signs that are found at many intersections, but the mobile, temporary stops signs that are created every time a school bus comes to a stop and turns on its lights.
In an era where distracted driving threatens to overtake drunk driving as our primary preventable road menace, collisions between distracted drivers and school children seem certain to rise. Against this backdrop, some law enforcement agencies have attempted to raise awareness among parents, in an effort to prevent accidents on that end. While any effort to prevent children from being hit while getting on or off a bus is to be applauded, such efforts can give the impression that children or their parents are to blame for these accidents. The truth is they are not.
March 20, 2017 - San Antonio, Texas
To illustrate the real-world nature of the threat posed by motorists who ignore school bus stop signs, as well as an impulse by police to raise awareness among parents, one need look no further than what happened to a little girl in San Antonio this past Monday.
According to reports, a school bus was stopped with its lights flashing, when the parents of a 6-year-old girl let her out of the car to catch a bus. It appears that the parents were stopped in a turn lane at the time of the accident, meaning that the girl had to traverse 2 lanes of traffic in the 4700 block of East Houston Street.
Before she could get to the bus, a truck driver, who apparently didn't see the buses' flashing lights, hit the brakes too late and struck the girl. Luckily the girl survived the encounter and the news reports that she is in stable condition.
What Is the Law for Vehicles Passing School Buses?
It was a little disturbing that in the news coverage following the accident, the police appear to gloss over the fact that the truck driver broke the law and instead chose to focus their energy on explaining to parents the need to keep a watch over children at school bus stops. In fairness to the police, this may have been part of a much larger statement and taken out of context, but someone watching the report I saw would certainly be led to believe that the parents could have acted differently to prevent the accident.
Whoever is responsible for the impression the news report creates, I find it disturbing that the report wasn't clearer on just how big a legal duty the truck driver violated when he didn't stop for the bus. At the same time I don't want to sound too harsh in my criticism of the news or police for discussing preventative steps that parents can take to avoid this accidents. After all, even though we know that just as we have the same duty to avoid collisions with other drivers that they do with us, we still teach defensive driving. Instead my critique is that the emphasis in the news coverage is absolutely wrong.
Equal time is given to recounting the remorseful truck driver who failed to stop for the school bus and the police warnings about the need for parental vigilance around bus stops. While the latter may be sound advice, the former is a criminal act. Giving them equal time establishes a moral equivalency between a lack of vigilance and someone who, absentmindedly, ignored the law.
Texas law is very clear and the exact text can be found in Section 545.066 of the Texas Transportation Code. The relevant portion is as follows:
PASSING A SCHOOL BUS; OFFENSE.
- (a) An operator on a highway, when approaching from either direction a school bus stopped on the highway to receive or discharge a student:
- (1) shall stop before reaching the school bus when the bus is operating a visual signal as required by Section 547.701; and
- (2) may not proceed until:
- (A) the school bus resumes motion;
- (B) the operator is signaled by the bus driver to proceed; or
- (C) the visual signal is no longer actuated.
- (b) An operator on a highway having separate roadways is not required to stop:
- (1) for a school bus that is on a different roadway; or
- (2) if on a controlled-access highway, for a school bus that is stopped:
- (A) in a loading zone that is a part of or adjacent to the highway; and
- (B) where pedestrians are not permitted to cross the roadway.
- (c) An offense under this section is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than $500 or more than $1,250, except that the offense is:
- (1) a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than $1,000 or more than $2,000 if the person is convicted of a second or subsequent offense under this section committed within five years of the date on which the most recent preceding offense was committed;
- (2) a Class A misdemeanor if the person causes serious bodily injury to another; or
- (3) a state jail felony if the person has been previously convicted under Subdivision (2).
- (d) The court may order that the driver's license of a person convicted of a second or subsequent offense under this section be suspended for not longer than six months beginning on the date of conviction. In this subsection, "driver's license" has the meaning assigned by Chapter 521.
- (e) If a person does not pay the previously assessed fine or costs on a conviction under this section, or is determined by the court to have insufficient resources or income to pay a fine or costs on a conviction under this section, the court may order the person to perform community service. The court shall set the number of hours of service under this subsection.
- (f) For the purposes of this section:
- (1) a highway is considered to have separate roadways only if the highway has roadways separated by an intervening space on which operation of vehicles is not permitted, a physical barrier, or a clearly indicated dividing section constructed to impede vehicular traffic; and
- (2) a highway is not considered to have separate roadways if the highway has roadways separated only by a left turn lane.
The most relevant portion of the law for this accident is the duty that all drivers, in both directions of the road, owe to stop when a school bus is stopped, with its lights flashing. With the exception of divided highways, this is the rule on most Texas highways. Another portion of the law that is of interest is that the penalty for failing to stop jumps from a fine up to $1,250, to a Class A misdemeanor, when someone is injured. That means the driver could face up to a year in jail and/or a $4,000 fine.
What that tells me is that the truck driver committed a pretty serious crime that had serious consequences. This doesn't make him a bad person. The news goes out of their way to point out that he did stop to render aid and most likely wasn't paying attention, until it was too late. With the being said, even viewed in the most charitable light, the seriousness of the truck driver's actions deserved more attention. That they merely served as a preface to a public service announcement in news accounts, downplays the significance of the driver's behavior.
Reporting School Bus Accidents
I understand that there are times that reporters genuinely have to be careful with how they talk about a story. In many instances, the facts of a case are not cut and dry, which means that a reporter has to tread lightly so as not to wrongly implicate someone. This isn't one of those stories.
Instead of this accident, imagine that the story was about a kid who was savagely beaten by a school bully. They news report then splits its time roughly between a depiction of the incident, the bully's deep remorse, and then ends with a segment advising parents how to keep their kids from being bullied. By giving equal time to the bully and the victim, it creates the impression that while the bully was wrong, there was more the victim could do to prevent the attack. Would that kind of story fly with anyone? Of course not, there would be outrage.
I think that is pretty similar to how this accident was reported. The news creates an impression that the little girl or her parents could have done more to make sure this girl took a bus ride to school instead of an ambulance ride to the hospital. It's little more than a passing mention that the seemingly remorseful truck driver didn't see the buses' lights until it was too late to stop. The problem is that after the girl being injured, the inattentive truck driver is the most important part of the story story.
With the exception of summers and weekend, kids pretty much go to school every day of the year. This means that drivers who are on the road in the mornings have to be on the lookout for buses. For good measure, these buses are even painted a bright yellow so that they stand out and can be seen from far away. Add in some flashing lights and you have a highly visible vehicle. This means that there is no excuse for not seeing a bus and stopping in time.
Again, to be clear, I'm not picking on reporters. However, reporting in this story and many others suggests that we have a societal blind spot to really obvious, but ongoing problems that have no ready solution. After all, telling drivers that they need to pay attention around school buses seems about as obvious and inane a point as saying that we shouldn't assault one another. Everyone already knows this and there are laws against this behavior.
It's also difficult to vilify a driver who stops and renders aid, instead of panicking and driving off, like quite a few drivers would do in the same situation. However, given what we know about the accident, the driver's behavior is still inexcusable. While it may strike some as cruel to single this guy out for a behavior that is epidemic on our roads, the fact is that he's the one whose inattention led to a 6-year-old girl getting injured.
Just because millions of people engage in the same behavior every day without an accident happening doesn't make it any safer or more responsible. It is unquestionable that if a driver is out in the morning and unaware that there may be school buses on the road, then they aren't really focused on the task at hand. When that same driver doesn't even notice something as conspicuous as a school bus, they're obviously not paying attention.
While this was most likely an accident, it doesn't make it innocuous. The law serves two purposes; it seeks to discourage dangerous behavior and at the same time provides punishment for those who behave dangerously. In this case, it failed in the first purpose: Hopefully, it will be more successful in the second.