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.
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?