Two recent school bus accidents have brought to light the fact that very few school buses that are in daily use around the country are equipped with the most basic of all safety devices: seat belts.
The first accident attracted little attention outside the State of Texas but serves as an example of school bus accidents that can occur during bad weather.
According to investigators, a tractor-trailer rig was traveling east on Interstate 20 when the driver forced to brake suddenly in an attempt to avoid a rear end collision with another vehicle. The 18-wheeler skidded on the wet highway before crossing the median and colliding with a small school bus. One passenger in the bus was killed and seven more were injured. According to witnesses at the scene, the bus was not equipped with seat belts.
School buses transport about 1.5 million students each day in Texas. According to the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) 2014-15 bus accident report, there were 2,416 bus accidents. What constitutes an “accident” was not defined in the report.
In 2007 the Texas legislature approved a law requiring buses that were purchased before September 1, 2010 to be equipped with three-point seat belts, the same seat belts found in cars and trucks. The 2009 Legislature approved $10 million for seat belt installation, but the appropriation disappeared into other school funding after few school districts expressed interest in the program. Because the 2007 law did not provide direct funding for seat belts on buses, but only for reimbursement of local district funds, the program was essentially ignored.
It can be understood that cash-strapped school districts are reluctant to spend their own money on a project such as seat belts and then have to wait months for reimbursement. What is difficult to understand is why a school district would want to gamble that an accident won’t happen.
The positions of the TEA and the local districts may make good financial sense but, at the same time, will it make good financial sense when a district is facing a wrongful death claim for the death of a student in a bus accident and has to explain that seat belts were not practical due to cost?
The Texas bus accident occurred less than 2 weeks after a Chattanooga, Tennessee school bus accident that killed 6 elementary school-aged students.
On the afternoon of November 21, 2016 a school bus owned by Durham School Services left the road in a Chattanooga suburb. The bus, which may have been speeding, rolled onto its side before slamming into a tree. Five children were dead at the scene of the accident and a sixth child died the following day.
According to police reports and published newspaper accounts the driver of the bus, Johnthony Walker, had left the regular route the bus should have been traveling. At the time of the accident, the bus was on a narrow two-lane residential street that contains several sharp turns. Walker’s bus was apparently traveling over the posted speed limit at the time of the crash and police reports indicate that drugs or alcohol were not a factor in the accident.
As a result of early investigations, Walker has been charged with 6 counts of vehicular homicide.
Walker, who had been driving for Durham School Services for less than 6 months, was reported by some parents as having a record of complaints about his driving habits. According to investigators, there have been no independent confirmations of these reports.
Durham School Services is a subsidiary of National Express LLC which, in turn, is the North American subsidiary of Great Britain’s National Express Group PLC. Durham claims to transport over 1 million students per day in the United States.
As in the Texas accident, the Chattanooga school bus was not equipped with seat belts or any other restraint devices.
According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press newspaper, three lawsuits have been filed against Durham School Services.
In the wake of the Chattanooga accident Durham School Services CEO David Duke has announced that his company is instituting a multi-million dollar, fleet-wide, series of safety improvements that will be in place by the end of 2017. These safety improvements will include a cloud computing-based nationwide reporting system that will allow fast responses to parental and school administration safety concerns as well as the installation of “smart cameras” that will record both the driver and road conditions when on-board sensors detect a sudden change in speed or other conditions.
Despite the death tolls there have been only a handful of parents, school officials, and state lawmakers who have come forward with demands that seat belts or other such restraining devices become mandatory equipment on all new school bus purchases and that the devices be added as a retrofit to buses that are already in service.