School Bus Safety Laws Long Overdue

If children are our most precious resource, then why aren’t we doing more to protect them as they travel to and from school?

For decades, there have been concerns about the lack of seat belts in school buses. Yet today, only six states have laws requiring them. Five of the six states have installed only the inadequate lap belts considered almost counterproductive because on impact they can cause severe abdominal injury to a child.

Only California employs the safer over-the-shoulder type seat belts found in most cars today. Why is this?

The horror of what happened in Chattanooga, Tennessee could have happened just about anywhere. At this writing, six young school children are dead, several remain in intensive care and many others are nursing injuries after their speeding driver plowed into an obstruction on a winding road, nearly flipped the bus and crashed into a tree.

According to reports, the driver, Johnthony Walker, 24, inexplicably drove away from his designated route onto a curvy side road and shouted out to the kindergarten and elementary school students, “Are you all ready to die?” His bus did not have seat belts. Tennessee does not require them.

Turns out Walker has only had his commercial driver’s license since April when he was hired by the contract transportation company Durham School Services. A police report shows that eight weeks ago, Walker had another accident. He failed to yield on a blind curve and sideswiped a small SUV going in the opposite direction. No one was hurt and police say neither alcohol or drugs were involved. There’s no indication Walker received any punishment for the accident.

A look at Durham School Services’ record is also disturbing. So far this year, their buses have been involved in 17 accidents which resulted in injuries to 19 people and caused one death.

A couple years ago, a Tennessee TV station reported the company’s drivers had more than 250 bus crashes over three years. The report also revealed that some Durham bus drivers were operating without commercial licenses and had serious driving violations and drug records. One employee, arrested for smoking marijuana on the bus had a felony record.

It seems like a miracle that we don’t hear about more deadly school bus accidents given what seems to be widespread lax oversight of bus drivers – from their hiring to their everyday job performance.

School Bus Driver Caught Running Red Light in Miami

Bus Driver Caught Running Red Light in Miami – courtesy municipal cameras

NBC News gathered reports from several of their stations, nationwide, and discovered unsafe bus drivers are not uncommon. The NBC investigation discovered some 7,000 tickets were issued to school bus drivers in New York, Dallas, Miami and Broward County, Florida over a two-year period. The citations were mostly given for speeding and ignoring traffic signals.

Traffic cam videos showed frightening scenes of yellow school buses, some with students on board, racing through red lights at busy intersections. In some cases, bus drivers were caught on camera blowing by other school buses that were loading or unloading students, oblivious to the fully extended bus-side arm warning drivers to stop.

According to the NBC station in Dallas, school buses there were involved in 200 crashes in the 2014-15 school year. So far in the 2015 -16 school year that number has risen to 405. Almost unbelievably, the agency that provides bus service in 12 Dallas area school districts had never disciplined any of the drivers who were seen on video running red lights. It was as if that was considered a regular cost of doing business. The Dallas County Schools agency simply used taxpayer money to pay the $80,000 in ticket fines.

After extensive and detailed reports on the travesty were aired the school board finally acted. 229 bus drivers in Dallas were suspended without pay, another 13 were fired outright.

In this day and age how can a factory be allowed to build a vehicle designed to carry children that does not have seat belts? How can a school bus company fail to fully screen the backgrounds of drivers who will be transporting such vulnerable passengers? How does a driver who breaks the law or has an accident escape punishment?

If the federal government is not going to pursue regulations to help keep our children safe it is up to parents and school boards in each state to become pro-active. Drivers of school buses must be held to a high standard. Bus operators must conduct more through background check and ongoing performance reviews or face hefty fines. And, there must be a renewed effort to retrofit all school buses with 3-point seat belts, even though it can cost up to $10,000 per bus.

Isn’t your child or grandchild’s life worth it?





  1. Diane Dimond on November 29, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    ABQ Journal Reader Terry Riley writes:

    I read your Op-Ed in the November 26 edition of the Albuquerque Journal. You made many good points. I recently retired from my bus driving job which I held for six years. I worked for Durham and grew to hate the company and the way that they treated the drivers and aides. In defense of any company or school district I have to point out that like so many other services we count on in American, school bus service is grossly underfunded. You pointed out that retrofitted existing buses would cost $10,000 per bus. How many buses are there? How much would this cost and how many lives would it save. The high back padded seats have provided significant protection in thousands and thousands of accidents and seat belts do not always save the life of the occupant.

    You derided the qualifications of the driver in the Tennessee accident. He is exactly who is driving a large percentage of the buses on the road today. The other problem area is the number over-aged drivers, with disabilities like vision restrictions, driving time restrictions which are always ignored, and no tolerance for the noise and activity level in a school bus.

    You pointed out the number of instances of school bus drivers speeding. They should not be speeding, busses are not safe when you are speeding, but in order to keep costs down a little driver’s schedules are very tight. An argument in the back of the bus or something requiring pulling over and tending to problem children means that the driver is now late to the next stop and the next school and all of those stops, etc. Students are a serious part of the problem both with driver inattention and with trying to maintain a schedule. Support from the company, the school district and the individual school and least I say, the parents is non-existent. A school bus driver has to somehow keep order on the bus, get the students to school on time, keep the bus clean, drive safely and avoid traffic congestion. If a driver gets complaints he/she will likely get disciplined but they will not get sympathy due because of the extenuating circumstances.

    You mentioned the school bus drivers passing other busses when the signal arm is out and the red lights are flashing. That is terrible! I have had police pass me and one friend of mine had a police car pass as a special needs student was starting to cross in front of the bus. The student had no warning until the police unit almost hit him. EVERYBODY ignores the signal are and red lights are flashing.

    I forgot to mention the difficulty of keeping your bus properly maintained. I was very lucky. I developed a friendship with our mechanics and when I wrote up a problem, I am a mechanic, they paid attention. A malfunctioning bus still has to come back to the yard and if there is no spare bus or spare driver you may have to continue to drive your students to the school first.

    Some of the routes in Albuquerque cannot be driven in a car in the time allowed from start to finish. This pushes the drivers to speed. We should not but we want to get our students to school on time and to get to the next school on time so we can take the students home in a good mood.

    As a driver I have a concern regarding seat belts. An unused seat belt makes a terrible weapon when one student wants to be mean or to get revenge on another student. A seat belt buckle can easily kill a person when used as a weapon.

    Just as an example I think that I should share my worst day. A student approached me as I was driving between stops. He said that a girl in the back had a gun in her backpack. I call that a severe driving distraction. I called her to the front and asked her if this was true. She admitted it was and had a story about why. Well, that eliminated many of the directions that this could have gone. I asked her to go back and bring me the backpack. She did. I asked her to open the backpack and show me the gun without facing the students on the bus. She did. I then asked her to hand it to me carefully. Whew, she did. I put it in the compartment immediately to my left to keep it out of sight from the other students. I explained to her that I was going to have to report her as soon as I finished delivering my other schools. Had other students seen the gun, it was a target pistol, there would have been panic on the bus, I kept order. I then broke an important rule. I called my supervisor on my cell phone. I could not have this going out over the radio. There would have been panic in the whole school district and police in almost all schools even if it was just a precaution. A radio call would have also meant that all of the students on my bus would have know that there was a gun on board. I HAD to report right then to protect myself in the event that I was involved in an accident and an investigating officer were to find the gun.

    This time the school took action. I believe that this girl was set up by the student who reported her to me as she explained to me but they suspended her. The parents moved her to another school to get her away from the bully who had set her up.

    Thank you for your time. I hope that you do something with this information.

    Terry Riley
    Albuquerque, New Mexico

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