Montana Legislature considers pair of bills to update road safety laws

House Transportation Committee
Posted at 8:09 PM, Feb 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-04 17:24:43-05

HELENA — After several tragic crashes, advocates are urging Montana lawmakers to make changes to the state’s road safety laws.

The House Transportation Committee held hearings Wednesday afternoon on House Bills 264 and 267. Supporters of both bills see them as responses to serious crashes over the last two years.

HB 264, sponsored by Republican Rep. Ross Fitzgerald of Fairfield, would revise the state’s laws on passing emergency vehicles.

Currently, drivers have to slow down and move over when passing firefighters, police or ambulances on the road. The bill would add tow trucks to the law, and require drivers to slow down to half the posted speed limit – or to a temporary posted speed if there is one – when passing. It would also create a charge of “reckless endangerment of emergency personnel” for those who violated the law.

In October, tow truck operators Casie Allen and Nick Visser were killed on Interstate 90 near Columbus. They were trying to get a disabled vehicle out of a ditch on the icy freeway when they were struck by a passing vehicle. The Montana Highway Patrol said the driver didn’t see a semi-truck in front of him slowing down for the tow trucks and moved into the passing lane to try to avoid a collision, but he hit Allen and Visser instead.

Both Allen and Visser’s families gave emotional testimony in support of HB 264.

“We must protect those who protect us,” said Visser’s wife, Kendra. “Their job is to save lives, and we must give them assurance that they are protected also.”

“If we don’t make this law stronger, more families are going to have to deal with the things that we’re dealing with right now,” said Allen’s father, Barry. “Enough is enough. We need to do better.”

The bill also received support from emergency responders around the state, who said they’ve been involved in dozens of crashes or near-misses in recent years. Rich Cowger, chief of Columbus Fire Rescue, responded to the October crash, and said highway crashes have become the most dangerous situation for his crews.

“We can choose to send somebody interior on a structure fire or not; most of the time, we have adequate time to get out of the way of a wildland fire,” he said. “What we can’t do, is we can’t outguess the driver that’s coming at us, sometimes in excess of 60 miles an hour.”

HB 267, sponsored by Rep. Neil Duram, a Republican from Eureka, would update Montana’s school bus safety laws. It would make a number of changes, including prohibiting drivers from passing a stopped bus on the right and requiring buses to include an extended stop arm if children have to cross a roadway when getting on or off. It would also add potential penalties for violations.

Duram said the effort to pass this bill grew after November 2019, when 6-year-old Jordana Hubble was struck and severely injured after getting off a school bus near Whitefish. Then, in October 2020, a driver was killed in the Flathead when he crashed into the back of a stopped school bus.

“My concern is, 2019 we had a serious crash, 2020 we had a serious crash – I’m hoping we can make some changes before we see the next one,” said Duram. “Our children are so valuable.”

Katy Morrison, a Flathead County mother, said her 12-year-old son Caden was nearly hit by a large truck as he got off the bus in December.

“We need to hold these offenders accountable,” she said. “Our children just want to get home safe. They should never have to fear getting on or off the bus.”

Much of the discussion Wednesday was on extended stop arms – a several-foot-long metal bracket with a second stop sign, which attaches to the sign already installed on the side of the bus. It is designed to partly obstruct a lane of traffic, making it harder for drivers to miss the flashing lights.

Rob Tracy, transportation director for the Bigfork School District, said he began installing extended stop arms several years ago, after seeing a jump in the number of people failing to stop when his buses had their lights on. He said they have seen a notable drop in violations since that time.

The Montana School Boards Association and Montana School Bus Contractors Association said they supported the intent of HB 267, but had some concerns – particularly about the possibility that the Legislature might mandate the use of extended stop arms but not provide a way to pay for them.

Duram said his intention was not that extended arms be required for all buses statewide, but that school districts would redesign their bus routes so students wouldn’t have to cross roads. He said he would introduce an amendment to address many of the issues opponents raised.

The committee did not take immediate action on either bill.