The sheer number of pedestrian accidents in school bus loading and unloading zones, some fatal, shows many motorists are either indifferent or uninformed about school bus stop laws. While those who are uninformed may contest their school bus passing tickets, a recent Maine Supreme Court ruling indicates that these violators will be held accountable.
On Nov. 25, the high court sanctioned the ticket despite offender Melanie S. Mourino’s argument that she was confused about how to proceed around the school bus she came upon at a “T” intersection while driving her son to daycare in Bar Harbor May 6, 2013. According to the Maine v. Mourino Supreme Judicial Court documents, Mourino was appealing a conviction entered by the trial court after a bench trial on a complaint charging her with passing a stopped school bus.
The court acknowledged that certain facts of the case are undisputed. When Mourino arrived at a stop sign at the end of Ash Street, she was facing the left side of a bus that was picking up students directly across the intersection from her vehicle.
Mourino testified that she could “see the children’s feet under the bus,” and “saw the children getting on the bus." She said that because of the bus' position relative to her, she did not see any flashing lights on the bus itself or on its extended stop sign. Mourina also noted that she thought she made eye contact with the bus driver, and when the bus did not move, she turned left and proceeded alongside the bus and down Park Street.
Bus driver Kathy White testified that she paid particular attention at this intersection because there had been problems with cars passing her bus there before. When she spotted Mourino reach the stop sign and “roll through it,” she honked her horn, but Mourino turned left and kept going. So White wrote down the plate number and reported the incident to the Bar Harbor Police Department.
The court found Mourino guilty and imposed a fine of $250. Two weeks later Mourino filed a motion for findings of fact that was denied by the court.
She argued that language in the state statute at issue was confusing and said that “meeting or overtaking a school bus from either direction” means the statute’s command to stop applies when a school bus is approached directly from the front or the rear, but not — as happened with her — when the bus is approached from the side at a “T” intersection.
Yet the court stated it found from the evidence that Mourino was “meeting” the bus and by continuing past it, she was “overtaking” the bus. “Accordingly, the evidence was sufficient to support the court’s verdict,” the court concluded.
“Moreover, it would be illogical, if not absurd, for the Legislature to have intended that children approaching and boarding a stopped school bus be protected from motorists who pass the bus from the front or the rear along (its) full length, but not from those who approach at an angle and pass only a portion of the bus The potential for injury to schoolchildren trying to board the bus is equally present in either scenario,” stated the court.
Even though this case did not involve school bus cameras, it sets an important precedent, according to theNewspaper.com. In 2009, Maine banned photo enforcement but permitted only an exception for toll road cameras (view law). Some school districts in the state continue to ignore the law and use cameras to create violations worth a minimum of $250.
Under state law, vehicle owners will have their license suspended upon a second bus passing accusation, even without photo evidence and even if owners can prove they were not driving at the time of the alleged offense.