"Nathan's Law" was passed last month by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Haley Barbour this week to overhaul school bus safety in the state, especially when the vehicles are stopped to load and unload student passengers. The law goes into effect on July 1, 2011.
On Dec. 11, 2009, a motorist who ignored the flashing reds and extended stop arm struck and killed 5-year-old Nathan Key after he disembarked his school bus in Laurel, Miss. The boy died just feet from his house as his mother watched in horror.
"It's my prayer that something positive will come from such a senseless tragedy," said Lori Key in January 2010. "I hope that Nathan's life and death will serve to inspire safety reforms all across our country."
In Mississippi at least, motorists must now stop at least 10 feet from a school bus when the bus is loading or unloading children, and motorists must not proceed until all children have crossed the street to or from the school bus and the flashing red lights are no longer activated and the stop sign on the side of the bus is retracted. The law also clarified that motorists must stop for school buses loading and unloading students on highways of four lanes or more, regardless if there is a center median or turn lane.
Senate Bill 2472 also carries with it a charge of felony assault and a prison sentence of up to 20 years for motorists convicted of illegally passing a school bus that, in the process, results in injury or death. It also authorizes cameras be equipped on school bus stop arms to film perpetrators in the act.
As part of the new law, the Department of Motor Vehicles is also required to develop at least 10 questions relating to school bus safety on a driver's license test. And a special school bus safety task force was created to study school bus designs and technology related to safety and law enforcement and publish recommendations to the governor's office by the end of this year.The first conviction for illegally passing a school bus stop results in a fine of at least $350 and as much as $750 or a jail sentence of up to one year. The fine for a second offense occuring within a five-year window increases to between $750 and $1,500, another jail sentence of up to a year and loss of driving privileges for 90 days. The latter penalty also applies to any motorists convicted of injuring a child while illegally passing a stopped school bus.
The penalties for illegal passing will also be assessed on the owner of the vehicle regardless if that person was operating the vehicle or not at the time of the citation.
"Nathan's Law" also prohibits school bus drivers from using cell phones, wireless communication devices, vehicle navigation systems or "personal digital assistants" while operating the bus, except in an emergency.