Fatal Chattanooga crash raises questions about school bus safety

NTSB investigators examine school bus involved in Chattanooga Bus Crash
NTSB investigators examine school bus involved in Chattanooga Bus Crash

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — “This is every first responder’s worst nightmare,” said Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher after a bus carrying dozens of students crashed, killing at least six and sending multiple students to the hospital.

The crash is raising questions about school bus safety. The National Transportation Safety Board is launching a go-team to investigate the crash. Investigators will collaborate with the Chattanooga Police Department. The National Transportation Safety Board said they will be at the scene of the crash for 7-10 days, but it could take as long as a year before they release a final report on the crash.

NTSB said the bus was not equipped with seat belts and they will investigate whether that was a factor in the children’s deaths.

More: Chattanooga School bus crash

Monday’s deadly bus crash comes just shy of two years after a school bus crash in Knox County that took 3 lives.  On December 2, 2014, two Knox County school buses heading east and west on Asheville Highway crashed near the intersection of John Sevier Highway. Two Sunnyview Primary School children, 7-year old Seraya Glasper and 6-year old Zykia Burns were killed along with teacher’s aide Kimberly Riddle.

victims knox county bus crash

The National Transportation Safety Board later found that the probable cause of the crash was distracted driving. The driver, James Davenport, was believed to reading a text message on his cell phone. Davenport died the following June from natural causes.

The crash prompted renewed calls for equipping school buses with seat belts. Six states require seat belts on school buses: California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

In the months that followed the crash, Tennessee lawmakers brought forward at least one such bill with an estimated cost of $5 million dollars per year to implement. That measure was sent to a summer study committee in 2015 in hopes of figuring out how to pay for the changes. Federal regulators in the fall of 2015 pushed for the first time for seat belts on all school buses.

Another effort that did gain traction was to increase penalties for bus drivers caught texting and driving. Governor Haslam signed that bill into law in April of 2016. It could include 30-day jail terms and permanent prohibition from operating a school bus in the state. Dr. Jim McIntyre, then Superintendent of Knox County schools was outraged by the texting and driving revelation, promising “there would be hell to pay,” for Knox County School Bus drivers caught texting behind the wheel.

Two children and an adult were killed in a crash involving two school buses Tuesday afternoon in East Knoxville.
Two children and an adult were killed in a crash involving two school buses Tuesday afternoon in East Knoxville.

Investigating the December 2014 crash also uncovered that the driver not blamed for the incident was not properly licensed to drive a bus by himself. Other revelations followed in 2016 with a consultant’s study showing that Knox County bus drivers were generally underpaid and not well-trained.

The study found a bus crashed in Knox County on average every other day. And on a per-mile basis, the crash figure came out to nearly double the recommended rate.

Knox County Schools implemented a slate of changes in response, including adding a customer service position to coordinate parent complaints. The district also terminated its contract with a bus operator over a variety of failures.  The district began the 2016-2017 school year with complaints and issues related to a lack of drivers. The county encouraged parents to be patient with drivers and the district’s new GPS tracking system and held job fairs in August for prospective bus drivers.

In 2015, federal regulators supported a movement to have a seat belt for every child on a bus. In the past, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) argued that seat belts weren’t needed because school buses are incredibly safe and are built to protect passengers with what is called compartmentalization. Kids sit in between tall, padded seats, which helps if they hit their heads.

However, some experts say compartmentalization only works when buses are hit from the front or the back, and if buses roll or are t-boned like last December’s Knox County Schools bus crash, the kids can be thrown from their seats.

Now, federal regulators want to see all students buckled up in a three-point seat belt. The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it’s an expensive challenge, but it will “save the lives of children,” during the National Association for Pupil Transportation’s annual conference in Richmond.

Christopher Hart, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said an increasing number of school systems are buying buses with both lap belts and shoulder belts.

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