What's to prevent another school bus tragedy?

Suburban officials say safeguards are in place to help avert crash like the one in Chattanooga

 
 
Updated 12/5/2016 9:14 AM
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  • Emergency responders work a fatal bus crash Nov. 21 in this photo provided by the Chattanooga Fire Department via the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Six children died when the driver hit a tree.

    Emergency responders work a fatal bus crash Nov. 21 in this photo provided by the Chattanooga Fire Department via the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Six children died when the driver hit a tree. Associated Press

  • Naperville North High School students board Naperville Community Unit District school buses Thursday. The district operates its own fleet that transports 11,000 students daily and travels 1.25 million miles annually.

      Naperville North High School students board Naperville Community Unit District school buses Thursday. The district operates its own fleet that transports 11,000 students daily and travels 1.25 million miles annually. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Over a 10-year period, 1,332 people were killed in school-transportation collisions, but occupants of buses constituted just 8 percent of the fatalities.

      Over a 10-year period, 1,332 people were killed in school-transportation collisions, but occupants of buses constituted just 8 percent of the fatalities. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

School buses are one of the safest ways to transport children, experts say.

So how could a Tennessee school bus driver leave his route and crash into a tree Nov. 21, and what safeguards can prevent a similar tragedy from happening in the suburbs?

Six children died and at least 20 were injured on the Chattanooga bus operated by Downers Grove-based Durham School Services, which works with 53 Illinois school districts, including some in the suburbs.

"I have the utmost respect and trust in the Durham personnel," said Lynette Zimmer, superintendent of Lake Villa District 41, which contracts with Durham. "I can tell you I am extremely pleased and confident with Durham's proactive approach when it comes to student safety and communication."

Among the issues under investigation after the Chattanooga crash are whether seat belts could have saved lives, whether bus driver screening is sufficient and whether parents' and kids' complaints about speeding were taken seriously.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for a national standard for selection, training and regulation of drivers that includes possessing a commercial driver's license and successfully completing a school bus-specific test.

Screening and standards "vary widely from state to state and district to district," said Deborah Hersman, former National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman and head of the Itasca-based National Safety Council. "It's a patchwork system."

"In Illinois, we take it a step beyond, and our standards are pretty strict," said David Druker, spokesman for Secretary of State Jesse White.

Illinois requires: a commercial driver's license and school bus driver permit, which involves a written test and behind-the-wheel exam that is renewed every year; an annual physical; FBI and state police background check; a clean driving record; and the condition that the driver cannot have suffered from mental illness in the last five years.

Tennessee does not have a behind-the-wheel exam for school bus drivers.

Chattanooga police charged bus driver Johnthony Walker, 24, with vehicular homicide. Several complaints about his speeding were filed by students before the crash, and he had griped about passengers misbehaving, The Associated Press reported. The NTSB is examining whether Walker, who had a second job, was fatigued.

Durham's safety record is rated satisfactory, the highest level issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, according to its database. With operations in 32 states and more than 13,000 drivers, Durham's buses were involved in 344 crashes in the last two years, three with fatalities and 144 with injuries. The data doesn't specify whether the injuries or fatalities involved bus occupants, people in other vehicles or pedestrians.

Other suburban districts using Durham are Community Unit District 300 based in Algonquin, where representatives declined to comment, Antioch High School District 117 and Mundelein Elementary District 75.

District 117 has "had a very good experience and service," Superintendent Jim McKay said. The managers are "excellent. They provide us with timely and accurate information and are responsive to our needs."

District 75 schools "have reduced our operating costs by sharing buses owned and operated by Durham," Superintendent Andy Henrikson said. "It has been our experience that the Durham drivers are well-trained and well-liked by our students and parents."

Durham President David Duke promised to install a new complaint system that directly connects Durham with administrators and teachers and add more "smart cameras" that record unusual driving.

"We are heartbroken by the tragedy in Tennessee," Durham President David Duke said in a video statement. "Now we are determined to learn from what happened and prevent it from happening again."

A number of large suburban school districts such as Elgin Area School District U-46 and Naperville Unit District 203 run their own bus services.

In addition to state requirements, District 203 reviews drivers' motor vehicle reports, bus eligibility cards and driving history, spokeswoman Michelle Fregoso said.

Experienced drivers undergo four days of internal training that includes observations of their driving skills, Fregoso said.

"They are then sent out with other drivers to drive routes and visit all the schools in the district, which can take another couple of weeks," she said. "We want to be sure they are familiar with all loading and unloading zones at our schools."

If complaints with U-46 drivers are reported, administrators immediately open an investigation, spokeswoman Mary Fergus said. "We meet with the driver and require their response to the allegations." If discrepancies arise between the complaint and the driver's account, officials use GPS data to confirm or refute the report and take disciplinary action if needed, she said.

Ensuring safe trips requires "constant vigilance," Hersman said, such as yearly driving record checks and drug and alcohol tests.

But "we don't want people scared of putting kids on the bus," she said. "It's by far the safest way to get to school."

Crash rates are far higher for children being driven to school by parents, siblings or teenage friends, the NSC finds.

Fewer than 1 percent of all crashes involve school-related transportation, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports. From 2006 to 2015, 301 children died in school transportation crashes: 54 were in buses, 137 were in other vehicles, 102 were pedestrians and eight were cyclists.

School buses are "designed for safety," Hersman said. "They're big, conspicuous, the fuel tanks are protected. The drivers are professional, and 99 out of a 100 are awesome and would lay down their lives to protect a kid."

Have an opinion on school bus safety? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Coming in next Monday's column: The school bus seat belt debate. With no federal law, supporters and detractors of seat belts on school buses can't see eye to eye on what's safe.

Safer than cars

Out of 331,730 fatal vehicle crashes in the U.S. from 2005 to 2014, less than 1 percent, or 1,191, involved school transportation. In that 10-year period, 1,332 people were killed in school-transportation collisions, but occupants of buses constituted just 8 percent of the fatalities. The majority, 71 percent, comprised people in other vehicles. Pedestrians and cyclists made up the remaining 21 percent.

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