Series of school bus crashes results in calls for driver oversight
(District of Columbia) The National Transportation Safety Board’s awaited review of two crashes involving school buses in Maryland and Tennessee in 2016 calls for improved district oversight of drivers.
In the Baltimore accident, the bus driver had a history of seizures, which had previously affected his driving and was a contributing factor in the crash. The driver in Chattanooga, Tennessee had been flagged for speeding, erratic driving patterns and cellphone use while driving–all of which contributed to that crash.
“Between the two crashes, 12 people died and 37 were injured,” authors of the report said. “Although the specific safety issues differed, the crashes shared one common factor: poor driver oversight by both the school districts and the contracted motor carriers, which resulted in unsafe operation of the school buses.”
The Transportation Safety Board found that the driver involved in the accident in Maryland had a history of seizures, for which he was prescribed medication to help control. The board identified 10 separate crashes in which the driver had been involved during the five years that he had spent working for five different school bus companies prior to the fatal crash–some of which resulted from his seizures.
One week before the crash, the driver had a seizure in front of a co-worker, and was informed by a supervisor that he would need a doctor’s medical clearance before returning to work. He returned to work the following day without a doctor’s clearance and was dispatched to drive his bus routes for the remainder of the week. The driver had also had seizures in front of school district employees who reported those incidents.
In addition to his documented seizure disorder, Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration records showed that the bus driver had repeated license revocations and suspensions over several decades, and had been issued numerous licenses after providing documents that showed different spellings of his name and different birth dates. One license was obtained through identity theft.
The National Transportation Safety Board recommended the Motor Vehicle Administration use facial recognition software to combat such fraud, and that policies be put in place to improve reporting and documentation of health conditions by medical providers and the Education Department.
In Tennessee, phone records show that the driver was using his cell phone at the time of the accident, and NTSB investigators determined the bus was going between 45–53 mph in a 30-mph zone when the driver lost control.
During his approximately 5 months of school bus driving experience, the driver had accumulated numerous complaints about his driving performance. Just five days before the crash, for instance, six students complained about the driver’s intentional swerving and erratic driving to their principal at Woodmore Elementary School.
Within three months on the job, complaints had been filed against the driver by his own supervisor at contractor Durham School Services, as well as Woodmore Elementary School principal, mostly about his speeding and poor driving. According to the NTSB, the unsafe driving behaviors that caused the crash began after the driver was told by Hamilton County Department of Education school staff to stop submitting such high numbers of disciplinary referrals for student infractions.
About a week after that conversation, Hamilton County and Durham School Services officials received the first of multiple complaints that the driver was retaliating by intentionally swerving or slamming on his breaks to make students fall or be thrown from their seats.
The report concludes that Durham did not take any action to relieve the driver of duty or take definitive steps to resolve the safety complaints, and that the Hamilton County Education Department did not follow up to determine the outcome of the reports of unsafe driving.
Authors of the report recommend companies like Durham that provide busing services to schools establish and strictly adhere to policies and procedures for handling school bus driver disciplinary issues, and implement a systematic and detailed process to manage complaints or allegations concerning its drivers.
And in terms of mitigating the effects of crashes and improving overall student safety, the report recommended that all states require lap and shoulder belts on all sizes of school buses, and that buses be equipped with electronic stability controls and collision avoidance technology with automatic braking
Despite the recent tragedies, the National Transportation Safety Board noted that traveling on a school bus remains one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States.
“Every day, nearly 600,000 buses carry more than 25 million students to and from school and activities. Children are safer traveling in school buses than in any other vehicle,” authors of the report wrote. “Improved oversight of school bus drivers and enhancements to school bus design—such as installation of passenger lap/shoulder belts, electronic stability control, and automatic emergency braking—could prevent or mitigate such crash outcomes.”