Christopher Hart, former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, shared lessons learned from recent school bus crash investigations and resulting recommendations to increase safety.
The NTSB revealed that 39,339 people died in traffic-related accidents in 2016, which is over 2,000 more than in 2015, and that highway accidents accounted for 95 percent of those fatalities. When it comes to school transportation, “school buses are the safest way to do it, but there’s always room for improvement,” Hart said at this year’s National Association of State Directors for Pupil Transportation conference in Columbus, Ohio earlier this month.
Hart first clarified that the NTSB’s “job is not to place blame or liability but to determine probable causes and make recommendations to prevent recurrences.” The association’s three teams investigate about 21 crashes a year, and their recommendations are followed 80 percent of the time.
Regarding the Chattanooga, Tennessee school bus crash that caused six childrens' deaths last November, said Hart, a major lesson learned was that driver records need to be monitored and investigated, if necessary. There had been complaints about the unsafe driving habits of school bus driver Johnthony Walker, but he was still allowed to drive children.
The Knoxville, Tennessee school bus crash of 2014 resulted in three deaths and was caused by a school bus driver who was distracted by texting and crashed into another school bus. The caution against phone usage while driving was readily apparent from that, said Hart. The NTSB had recommended in 2006 that novice drivers and commercial vehicle drivers be forbidden to use cell phones while on the road, and expanded that in 2011 to include all drivers of all vehicles.
“We push those fights,” Hart said, “We try to expand those boundaries, to push for safety.” He added that 20 states are favorable to a cell phone ban for school bus drivers.
Whenever a school bus crash occurs, the topic of seat belts is quickly brought up, Hart acknowledged. That was certainly the case after a Houston crash in 2015, which saw two students killed when a car pushed their school bus off an overpass. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration did recommend as a result that lap-shoulder belts be added to school buses, but the federal agency did not mandate it.
Hart shared that, between 2006 and 2015, six out of 34 school buses that crashed also overturned. He explained that cost-benefit analysis doesn’t support the addition of three-point seat belts when the accident is deemed an “un-survivable accident.” This, he said, is why NHTSA doesn’t mandate it. “Congress could mandate it but I don’t see that happening,” he said.
While addressing lap-shoulder belts on school buses in another session that day, NHTSA Highway Safety Specialist Jeremy Gunderson shared that mandating seat belts without securing or providing the funding for them was a very real concern. “We don’t want fewer kids to get school bus rides because of increased costs” that are caused by the addition of seat belts, Gunderson said.
It is imperative, Hart added, for regulators, NHTSA and NTSB to communicate and develop “a better way to prioritize our scarce resources.”
That’s not to say crashes will be fatality-free when seat belts are available on school buses, Hart cautioned. For example, in the Chesterfield, New Jersey school bus crash in 2012, the bus was equipped with two-point lap belts but the fatally injured child was not wearing hers and was thrown from one side of the bus to the other in 1.4 seconds. Furthermore, the NTSB determined that bus driver fatigue played a large role in that crash.
A month after that, another school bus crash occurred in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Video proved that, although the lap belts keep children in their seats, they do not prevent upper-body flailing and collisions with other children or the sides of the bus. And the one student fatality in that incident resulted from a complete seat failure.
New Jersey and Florida are two of the four states with two-point lap belt laws, along with New York and Lousiana. But the Pelican state lacks the required legislative appropriations to enforce the law.
Good video footage of the effectiveness of lap-shoulder belts was obtained during the 2014 Anaheim, California school bus crash, which resulted in no fatalities but did cause several serious injuries. That crash revealed another area of concern as the driver had hidden a medical condition he had that causes dizziness and blackouts. It should be emphasized that “drivers have to tell the truth,” said Hart.
Video evidence showed in the Anaheim case especially that lap-shoulder seat belts do help save lives in side-impact crashes; what the schools and parents must do now is train children in their correct and constant use on board the bus.
Compartmentalization, the long-heralded safety feature of high-backed padded school bus seats that keep students protected, is passive protection designed only for frontal and rear impact crashes, said Hart. But lap-shoulder seat belts “provide significant protection” on top of that.
“Compartmentalization is the egg carton. Lap-shoulder belts close the lid,” Hart affirmed.