HELENA, Mont. — Lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a bill that would increase the distance that motorists have to stop behind a school bus when students are boarding and disembarking.

House Bill 155 states that when a motorist approaches from either direction a bus that is stopped on a highway or street with its red lights flashing for children to enter or exit, the motorist must stop 30 feet away from the bus. Current law requires motorists to stop 15 feet from a bus.

A violation is punishable by a fine of up to $500, which is consistent with the current law.   

During a hearing for the bill, Rep. David Moore, who sponsored the bill, said it "increases the visual safety for children," and he noted that in rural southern Missoula County, for example, there have been "close calls from people that have not stopped or waited on buses."

"I think it's an important issue to bring back out into the public light," Moore added.

Supporters of the bill were also present at the hearing. Bob Gilbert, representing the Montana School Bus Contractors Association, said that the association supports the bill, and he recommended that it be passed.

"Increasing the distance is important ... especially if you're looking in the mirrors in the back of the bus," Gilbert said. "You get those dark spots or blind spots, and if you get them [motorists] a little further back, you get them out of that blind spot."

Also in support of the bill was Dennis Parman, deputy superintendent of public instruction in Montana.

"Moving this distance back 15 feet only makes good common sense," Parman said of the amendment. "It increases the field of vision for school bus drivers and motorists, and it provides a larger buffer for safety for the children."

The bill passed in the House with an 78 to 21 vote on Wednesday, and it was submitted to the Senate for review on Thursday.

Other news related to school bus transportation in Montana:

Buses cleared to cross aging bridge

New state director named in Montana