The accompanying photo is my sweet daughter, flashing the “I love you” sign from a school bus window on the first day of first grade in 1994.

When my children were riding the big yellow school bus to elementary school, I was confident that they would be safe on the school bus. In fact, most school buses are relatively safe. 

That was before I started handling injury cases for students on school buses, vans and tour buses carrying school athletic teams. All these years later, I am hardly surprised to learn that Georgia has one of the highest rates of motor vehicle related student fatalities in the country,  according to the Cliff Shearouse, who serves as transportation director for Henry County Schools.

The new school year is upon us and Georgia school officials are improving their efforts to remind motorists of bus stop safety. That’s because over 60 percent of Georgia students use school buses to travel to and from school. With the majority of students taking buses to and from school, school bus safety is a subject close to every parent’s heart.

In May 2013, a 10 year old girl in Clay County died after alleged mechanical problems led the bus to run off the road into a ditch. In April, a 5 year old was killed in Macon after being hit by a bus while waiting at the bus stop. In April 2012, an 11 year old boy was killed in Henry County as he was walking to the bus stop on the way to school.In 2010, a Carroll County teenager died while saving a friend in the crash of a school bus for which the driver was not yet certified. In 2009, an Atlanta school bus struck and killed a kindergartner at a bus stop.

In Georgia, school districts have immunity from civil liability for most things, but that immunity is waived to the extent of liability insurance purchased for school buses. Liability insurance coverage for injuries arising out of the use of school bus operates as a waiver of a school district’s sovereign immunity to the extent of the insurance. O.C.G.A. § 33–24–51; Coffee County School Dist. v. King, 229 Ga.App. 143, 493 S.E.2d 563 (1997.)

The waiver of immunity extends to supervision of loading at school and the process disembarking from buses until a child reaches the curb. DeKalb County School Dist. v. Allen, 254 Ga.App. 66, 561 S.E.2d 202 (2002). However, immunity is not waived for claims where a child is struck while waiting at a bus stop. Brock v. Sumter County School Bd., 246 Ga.App. 815, 542 S.E.2d 547 (2000). It does not waived when a child is struck by a car walking home after the bus has driven two miles away. Roberts v. Burke County School Dist., 267 Ga. 665, 482 S.E.2d 283 (1997). If a school bus driver drops off a child an an unapproved, unsafe location, there may be waiver of immunity but not if the school district’s insurance policy defines “use” of the bus so as to exclude this. Roberts v. Burke County School Dist., 267 Ga. 665, 482 S.E.2d 283 (1997)   Nor is the school district’s immunity is waived regarding claims of negligent supervision where one student deliberately injures another on a school bus. Payne v. Twiggs County School Dist., 269 Ga. 361, 496 S.E.2d 690 (1998). Hicks v. Walker County School Dist., 172 Ga.App. 428, 429(1), 323 S.E.2d 231 (1984).

A while back, I handled an injury case for a kindergarten student who was run over by a school bus on school property. He had left his coat in the classroom, ran back to get it, and when he came back out he mistakenly thought his bus was pulling away. The rear wheels of the school bus ran completely over the midsection of his body. Miraculously he survived and recovered. The school district’s immunity was waived with regard to our claim for negligent supervision of children boarding buses and we collected the policy limits.

With the increase in school bus injuries, Georgia officials plan to create initiatives that will educate the public regarding traffic laws related to bus stop safety and increasing enforcement efforts.  These steps include educating the public about traffic laws currently in place for school buses. There have also been automated safety camera systems placed on school buses that capture evidence of motorist who violate traffic laws along school bus routes.

It is the responsibility of the motorist to read bus signals such as flashing yellow or amber lights indicating that motorists should slow down and stop. Also, on undivided highways motorists are required to stop for school buses flashing red lights regardless which way they are traveling.

When a child is injured or killed on a school bus, we refer to national school bus safety publications.

Seat belts are not required on school buses in Georgia. This is an area of controversy nationally. Although safety belts provide excellent protection in passenger vehicles, the effectiveness of safety belts on school buses is a subject of debate. In 2008, NHTSA released a change to FMVSS 222, which requires new school buses weighing 10,000 pounds or less to have lap-shoulder belts. The rule also requires increasing the height of seat backs from 20 inches to 24 inches and allows states or local jurisdictions to decide whether to install seat belts on school buses weighting over 10,000 pounds. California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Louisiana, and Texas have passed seat belt laws for school buses but funding has been scarce. Legislators in several other states introduced bills that would require school buses to have seat belts installed, but progress on that is slow.

Recently, North Carolina passed the Hasani N. Wesley Student’s School Bus Safety Act.  The Act imposes tougher penalties on motorists who fail to stop for school buses when the buses are loading and unloading students. The law was prompted by several  tragedies in which students were injured or killed by motorists while getting on or off school buses. The new law is named after one of those students, Hasani N. Wesley, who was killed last December by a motorist who illegally passed a stopped school bus the student was trying to board.

It is also important for motorists to realize that the presence of school buses means there is a chance children will be crossing. Motorists must  use caution when they see any school bus, and when they see any child loading or unloading from a school bus. Authorities remind drivers that school buses and their passengers will be out and about from 6:00 to 9:00 in the morning and then from 2:30 to 5:00 in the afternoon. During this time, authorities urge drivers to use the utmost care.

Remember to watch for school buses and children loading and unloading this school season. If your child has been injured in a motor vehicle accident while on the way to or from their bus stop, you should contact an attorney immediately. An attorney will be able to review the facts and see if the other party is liable to the injuries or possible loss that was sustained.

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Photo of Ken Shigley Ken Shigley

Ken Shigley, senior counsel at Johnson & Ward, is a former president of the State Bar of Georgia (2011-12). He was the first Georgia lawyer to earn three board certifications from the National Board of Trial Advocacy (Civil Trial Advocacy, Civil Pretrial Advocacy…

Ken Shigley, senior counsel at Johnson & Ward, is a former president of the State Bar of Georgia (2011-12). He was the first Georgia lawyer to earn three board certifications from the National Board of Trial Advocacy (Civil Trial Advocacy, Civil Pretrial Advocacy, and Truck Accident Law). In 2019, he received the Traditions of Excellence Award for lifetime achievement. Mr. Shigley was the lead author of eleven editions of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice (Thomson Reuters, 2010-21). He graduated from Furman University and Emory University Law School, and completed certification courses in trial practice, negotiation and mediation at Harvard Law School.