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.
Image by fernando neves