Though a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration final rule that now allows commercial drivers who properly manage their diabetes to operate vehicles in interstate commerce does not explicitly apply to school bus drivers, the issue is expected to be a topic of discussion at school bus industry meetings this fall, if not sooner.
Attendees at the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Annual Meeting in Kansas City in late October can expect to learn more about the new FMCSA regulation and what it could mean to the issue of school bus driver oversight. That issue has come under public scrutiny following several high-profile crashes and other incidents, said Charles Hood, the association’s executive director.
Previously, FMCSA prohibited all individuals with insulin-treated diabetes mellitus, or ITDM, from driving commercial vehicles—unless they received an exemption. “This final action delivers economic savings to affected drivers and our agency, and streamlines processes by eliminating unnecessary regulatory burdens and redundancy,” said FMCSA Administrator Raymond P. Martinez on Tuesday. “It’s a win-win for all parties involved.”
School bus drivers operating home-to-school and school-to-home routes, or extracurricular school activity trips, are largely exempted from FMCSA requirements, except when working for a private school or a contractor and operating field trips, or when medical fitness is a concern.
On Sept. 7, several students in Sealy, Texas, sprang into action to stop the school bus after their bus driver passed out behind the wheel. In April, a middle school student steered the bus to safety after the driver also lost consciousness. No injuries to the students were reported from either incident.
However, a Baltimore school bus driver with a history of medical conditions and moving violations passed out on Nov. 1, 2016, with fatal consequences. The school bus, with an aide on board but no students, reached a speed of 60 mph, rear-ended a car and slammed nearly head-on into a city transit bus. The school bus driver, transit bus driver and five transit passengers died.
The National Transportation Safety Board in May found that a lack of oversight by Baltimore City Public Schools on school bus contractor AAAfordable Transportation, the employer of 67-year-old Glenn Chappell, contributed to the fatal crash. Over a five-year period prior to the incident and while working at five different school companies, NTSB said that some of the 10 separate crashes involving Chappell resulted from his seizures.
On March 29, NTSB called for an independent, third-party performance audit of the school district’s transportation department. NTSB also recommended that the Maryland State Department of Education review, modify and clarify disqualifying conditions, and to require it receive notification of all drivers that are found to be unqualified during pre-employment screenings.
NASPTS published a position paper in May that provided an overview of the requirements for licensing, training, qualifications and performance must meet, as well as best practices. In addition to obtaining a commercial driver’s license with a passenger or school bus endorsement, NASDPTS pointed out that school bus drivers are required to receive pre-service training prior to being certified to drive students, as well as topic-based, in-service training, at least annually.
School bus drivers are also required to pass criminal background checks, plus drug and alcohol testing, in addition to maintaining a clean driver history and conducting pre- and post-trip vehicle inspections.
Just as important is their fitness to drive. While each state may have more stringent requirements governing school bus drivers with diabetes, specifically, NASDPTS said each driver applicant at a minimum should be required to pass a state-prescribed physical exam that meets FMCSA guidelines, which disqualifies individuals with ITDM.
Exemptions include being grandfathered under an FMCSA diabetes waiver study program dating back to March 31, 1996; passing an annual physical examination by a board-certified or eligible endrocrinologist; being free of insulin reactions and severe hypoglycemia; showing the ability and willingness to properly monitor and manage the diabetes; and being unlikely to suffer “diminution” in driving due to the disease.
School bus drivers with diabetes must also hold a valid medical examiner certificate.
NASDPTS Executive Director Charlie Hood told School Transportation News that the association’s board has agreed that data is necessary on various state regulations and guidelines on medical qualifications, as well as other driver requirements.
“It has been several years since we surveyed some of these things, individually, and our board supports the need to have a more current ‘inventory’ of where states stand with regard to uniformity, or the lack thereof, of such regulations, especially in the areas where there are no applicable federal rules,” he explained. “When we last checked, there were about 30 states that adopted the federal medical fitness standard, from which most intrastate public school bus drivers are federally exempt. We may see some of these states reviewing their prohibitions on drivers with ITDM, in light of the new federal allowance.”