Mississippi Weighs Stripped-Down School Bus Safety Bill

March 4, 2010

What began as a comprehensive school bus safety bill is still alive at the Capitol, but in a weakened form.

The House Judiciary A Committee approved the bill on Monday, a day before a legislative deadline for committees to act on bills that originated in the opposite chamber.

Committee Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said he had numerous concerns about the bill, including provisions to create a 30-foot buffer zone around a stopped school bus and a requirement that only hands-free cell phones be used by motorists in school zones. His committee removed both measures.

Blackmon said the buffer zone would be hard to enforce in “an urban environment” where there’s usually bumper-to-bumper traffic. He said some motorists may not be aware of when they’re entering or leaving a school zone.

Blackmon also said it was “ridiculous” to include a five-year prison sentence for someone convicted of injuring a child while passing a school bus on a first offense. He said under current law a person could be charged with aggravated assault and face up to a 20-year sentence for the same reason.

The bill was filed by Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, in response to last year’s death of 5-year-old Nathan Key, a Jones County boy who was hit by a car after he got off a bus.

“The bill as it left the Senate is an insult to the legacy of the child who lost his life,” Blackmon said. “The only way it could be salvaged is the way I did it.”

The bill passed the Senate without opposition and wasn’t changed from its original form.

Supporters of the bill are urging lawmakers to restore some of the provisions. Jones County Sheriff Alex Hodge and about two dozen residents wearing T-shirts with Nathan’s picture on it joined McDaniel at a news conference at the Capitol.

McDaniel defended the provisions that were stripped by the House. He said the hands-free provision is a law that’s been passed in Texas and Illinois, “and has been working extremely well.”

McDaniel said the first-offense felony language was needed because the current law is difficult to enforce because prosecutors have to prove a motorist intentionally tried to hit the child.

“It’s a much higher standard,” McDaniel said. “We’re trying to fill a hole in the law. If Nathan had been injured, it would have been difficult to charge the person with a felony.”

The child was struck by a car and killed Dec. 11 after he got off of a school bus in front of his home in Laurel. Authorities have charged Dominic Gebben with manslaughter and felony fleeing the scene. Gebben was accused of trying to pass the stopped school bus.

Since the accident, Hodge said he’s been conducting sting operations to catch drivers who pass school buses. The sheriff said two people received $375 tickets for going around a stopped bus.

“The first one we stopped said he was half-asleep. The other one said he didn’t see the school bus. How can you not see a school bus?” Hodge said.

The bill now goes before the full House for vote.

Oneter Sims, a mother of two who traveled from Laurel to the Capitol on Tuesday, said she’s glad the bill is still alive.

“My children ride the bus to schools. We send them off to school and they come home from school and we think they’re safe,” Sims said. “This is a good law to be passed so another mother and father won’t have to suffer.”

The bill is Senate Bill 2505.

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