Stop That Bus! Er… at That Bus!

The Washington Post carried a story on Tuesday about a Virginia man who was acquitted of a charge of failing to stop for a school bus that was unloading passengers. His lawyer made an argument, accepted by the court upon appeal, that the relevant section of the statute had been misdrafted, ever since it was changed in 1970, and was missing a critical “at,” rendering it meaningless.

Here’s the section in question:

    A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.

The supposedly missing “at” should have appeared immediately following the word “stop,” according to the lawyer’s argument. In support of his argument, the appellant submitted a statement from a professor of English, who said:

…that the phrase “when approaching from any direction” is a nonrestrictive modifier and can be removed from the sentence. “As a result,” [the professor] wrote, “the grammatical core of the first half of the sentence would read, ‘A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop any school bus. . . . ‘ This is a cohesive, grammatically correct sentence that conveys a clear if not very reasonable meaning.”

Is the interpretation accepted by the court correct?

One further piece of information may (or may not) be of assistance:

The 1970 predecessor section (which the Post completely messed up, ironically) seems to have read as follows:

    A person shall be guilty of reckless driving who shall:

    (f) Fail to stop at a school bus whether publicly or privately owned and whether transporting children to, from, or in connection with a public or private school stopped on a highway for the purpose of taking on or discharging school children, when approaching the same from any direction and to remain stopped until all school children are clear of the highway and the bus is put in motion, [etc.]

I know how the 1970 section in fact read thanks to an analysis of this case by Mark Liberman of Language Log and the interesting comments that his post attracted. Compare your opinion with his and those of his readers.

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Comments

  1. Balderdash. There is a presumption against excessive verbiage. Taking \when approching from any direction\ to be a nonrestrictive modifier makes it excessive verbiage. If, on the other hand, you just relocate the commas you have:

    A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop when approaching, from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.

    Now \from any direction\ is the nonrestrictive modifier, the excessive verbiage is less, and the core is \stop when approaching any school bus…\

  2. The Language Log discussion points out that the subsections following the disputed language clearly qualify the first subsection in a way that makes it completely clear what was meant by the first: stop at a bus. If the trial decision stands, does anyone in Virginia have to stop at a stopped school bus until the legislature amends the statute? Do the flashing lights and the stop signs mean nothing, in the face of this abusive and profoundly irresponsible decision?

  3. As written

    A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.

    clearly states that an approaching driver is guilty of reckless driving if he or she fails to stop an already stopped bus (which is stopped for the stated purpose.)

    Perhaps this is an example of a Virginia legal fiction, like some of Virgina’s other unusal laws that are still on the books and occasionally make the headlines.

    Or erhaps there’s another Virginia law that deems a bus stopped for that purpose to be a moving vehicle for some reason.

    (My excuse for this is that I just sat through the first two periods of yet another Maple Leaf laugher.)

    DC

  4. I’ll always remember The Highway Traffic Amendment Act, 1977 (No. 2), S.O. 1977, c. 19, s. 3(10) (LLMC). It repealed s. 82(16) of The Highway Traffic Act, R.S.O. 1970, c. 202, and replaced it with:

    (16) Every person who contravenes any of the provisions of this section or an by-law or regulation made under this section is guilty of an offence and on summary conviction is liable, where the rate of speed at which the motor vehicle was driven,
    (a) is less than 20 kilometres per hour over the maximum speed limit, to a fine of $1.25 for each kilometre per hour that the motor vehicle was driven over the maximum speed limit;
    (b) is 20 kilometres per hour or more but less than 40 kilometres per hour over the maximum speed limit, to a fine of $1.75 for each kilometre that the motor vehicle was driven over the maximum speed limit;
    (c) is 40 kilometres per hour or more but less than 60 kilometres per hour over the maximum speed limit, to a fine of $2.50 for each kilometre per hour that the motor vehicle was driven over the maximum speed limit;
    (d) is 60 kilometres per hour or more over the maximum speed limit, to a fine of $3.25 for each kilometre that the motor vehicle was driven over the maximum speed limit. (Emphasis added.)

    I was articling at the time, and our client fell into category (d). I argued that the fine ought to be calculated on the basis of the distance that our client had travelled at the speed in question. Whatever else it may have been thinking, the Legislature had clearly indicated that it did know the difference between “kilometres” (b and d) and “kilometres per hour” (a and c). For some reason, not very clearly articulated as I recall, the J.P. wasn’t persuaded.

  5. Here’s a link to the entire provision of the Virginia Code: http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+46.2-859

    The remainder of the provision explains when it is not necessary for a driver to stop when approaching a school bus. So, it does clarify the context for the first rule stated in the provision.

    It is pretty shoddy drafting, but I’m surprised the judge did not read in the “at” to avoid such an absurd interpretation. Perhaps he was fed up and wanted to make a point? At the very least, his decision has made people more aware of the importance of proper sentence structure and grammar. That can’t be a bad thing can it?

  6. It’s one thing to make a grammatical point, and another to put kids at risk because some bozo doesn’t bother to stop when approaching a school bus (from either direction) because the law has been held not to require it.

    Moving the comma over two spaces, so the active part read ‘stop when approaching (from either direction) a school bus’, would have solved the ‘problem’.

    I suppose as a principle of criminal law, it doesn’t matter whether you think you are breaking the law or not, if it turns out that doing what you thought was wrong was not prohibited, on a ‘proper’ interpretation of the relevant statute.

    Nevertheless why would not unanimity among, say, drivers’ schools, interpretive material, and the opinion of Virginia drivers about the obligation to stop, not count in interpretation? Might any of them have been allowed in as expert witnesses or evidence?

    The defendant may not have testified. If he had, would it be a fair question (under Canadian law or Virginia law) to ask him if he had thought, at the time of the incident, that he was required to stop when approaching a school bus? In other words, could his interpretation of his obligations be relevant to his guilt?