'Gabby’s Law' Heads To Senate Floor, But Initial School Bus Safety Bill Supporters Not Happy

Feb 29, 2016

Donald Mair, the father of Gabby, speaks to lawmakers, during the school bus safety bill's first hearing.
Credit Florida Channel

A bill that enhances the penalties for passing a stopped school bus is heading to the Senate floor, after passing its last committee Monday. But, proponents of “Gabby’s Law” aren’t too happy with a recent change to the original bill.

There’s already a new law on the books called “Gabby’s Law for Student Safety.” It requires school districts to identify hazardous walking conditions for students.

Now, Donald Mair is hoping another law called “Gabby’s Law for School Bus Stop Safety” will pass the Florida Legislature.

“The bill was named after my daughter,” said Mair. “She was killed at her school bus stop.”

In 2010, Gabby lost her life at the age of 12, after she was hit by a car when she exited the school bus in Volusia County.

Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs) is carrying the Senate bill.

“[Senate Bill] 1570 reclassifies the offense of passing a school bus on the right side, where children enter and exit from a noncriminal moving violation to a reckless driving offense,” he said.

But, to the disappointment of proponents of the original bill, Simmons changed the measure.

“It also previously authorized the use of cameras—in the original bill it does that—as a recording device,” he added, during the bill's first committee hearing. “That is being deleted.”

Simmons says he made that call, at the request of Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg)—who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee—also the bill’s first stop.

Brandes has long been an opponent of red light cameras, and is carrying a bill in the Senate to repeal them. It’s currently stalled.

But, Sen. Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Gardens) questioned why Brandes’ views on red light cameras had entered into the school bus stop safety debate.

“I’ve heard his objections to it, and I am trying to juxtapose that [red light cameras] with the cameras on the side of the school bus, because the cameras on the side of a school bus stops someone from running over a child,” he stated. “Period. That’s it. That’s what it does, if I’m not mistaken. If I know your bill well—because I did it for four years—it is activated when the bus driver pops open that door and pushes that button. So, it’s manually activated by the driver. This is not something that is sitting there and if you happen to pull up or the light is too quick.”

“It’s a great question,” Brandes replied.

But, Brandes said, at the time, he would speak to Braynon privately. Still, Braynon says he’s going to work to get the cameras included back in.

Donald Mair wasn’t too happy either. He says the cameras are needed in order for the law to be enforced as well as save lives.

“I can’t believe you passed that amendment,” said Mair. “So, what we have now is an unenforceable law…that’s because our law requires a law enforcement officer to witness the infraction. Florida Department of Education says there’s over 14,000 school buses on our roads every day twice a day. And, so a law enforcement officer cannot follow around a bus and protect our children and that’s why kids in our state are constantly being run over.”

And, he says state studies support his views.

“We needed those cameras,” he added. “We had to have them, and by passing that amendment, we just said to every family in the state of Florida, your child’s life doesn’t matter. Because right here, the Florida Department of Education says 10, 987 motorists in one day passed stopped school buses. One day! My daughter mattered. She was just run over, going to and from school. We needed it to protect our kids. And, now, if we try to do it again next year in a 12-month period, I guarantee you 12 more kids are going to die because we didn’t get it done this time.”

But, Brandes says despite his views on the issue, he feels for Mair as a parent.

“Mr. Mair, as a father, I’m incredibly sorry for your loss and I know there’s nothing that we do or say that can ease that pain,” Brandes replied. “And, I just appreciate your testimony and your advocacy on this issue.”

And, the measure passed Brandes’ committee unanimously. Now, it’s off to the Senate floor.

Meanwhile, its House companion has already cleared its first hearing. It had one stop before heading to the floor, but Rep. Victor Torres (D-Orlando)says his bill appears stalled.

Not only does it differ from the Senate version as it includes the cameras, Torres says the chairman of the bill’s last committee hearing had problems with enhancing the penalties for violations.

So, Torres says if it dies, he hopes to bring the bill back next year.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.