By Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg
Fact: Students are safer riding to and from school and school activities on a school bus than in the family car, and far safer than they would be riding in a car with a teenage driver. There should be no doubt that everything possible is being done to keep children safe on school buses. On commercial aircraft, a flight attendant’s primary responsibility is safety and so it is with school bus drivers, whether at the wheel or leading an evacuation.
But emotional response to tragedies like the one described below, may influence some parents to believe that it’s safer for them— or, worse yet, their teenage drivers — to drive their children to school.
NTSB recently completed an investigation of the December 12, 2017, school bus fire in Oakland, Iowa, that took the life of the driver and one student passenger. The driver entered a private driveway to pick up his first passenger of the morning. As he did routinely, he backed across the gravel road behind the driveway but on this day the rear wheels dropped into a ditch and the bus became stuck, its exhaust pipe wedged into an embankment. As the driver attempted to free the bus, the turbocharger overheated and a fire began in the engine compartment, engulfing the bus several minutes later.
None of the doors were blocked so the driver and his single passenger had ample time to exit. It appears that the student was attempting to help the driver escape and they were both overcome with smoke. Sadly, this driver had mobility challenges although he held a valid medical certificate. He used a cane or a walker and was scheduled for surgery two days after the accident.
The Iowa Administrative Code specifies that drivers must be physically able to help ill or injured passengers off the bus. Additionally, an employer can (and should) evaluate a driver’s ability to assist in an evacuation. This driver, simply, was unfit and could not perform the emergency duties required of him. What’s more, the school district knew the driver was unfit for duty, but he was allowed to continue driving. The transportation supervisor, the school principal, and his coworkers all knew of his physical impairment. The Riverside Community School District had the knowledge it needed to act, yet it did not. In fact, in recent years, it had gone so far as to do away with physical performance tests for drivers.
As a result of this crash, NTSB issued and reiterated recommendations which, if acted upon, will result in landmark changes to school bus safety. All new and in‑service school buses should be equipped or retrofitted with fire-suppression systems. Fire-resistant material should separate bus occupants from the engine to ensure that no hazardous gas or flame can pass from the engine compartment, and revise existing standards flammability of interior materials. More robust physical performance testing and maintaining complete records will help to ensure school bus drivers are fit for duty.
The state of Iowa was encouraged to establish a driver safety hotline so anyone could report drivers that may be unfit for the job. Finally, we recommended that every bus driver receive at least annual training on emergency procedures, including evacuation and use of the onboard 911 button. They should demonstrate the ability to operate all exits and assist students off the bus. Likewise, all student riders should be trained on emergency procedures and evacuation – regularly.
We reiterated a recommendation to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to adopt new federal fire safety standards for flammability of interior materials that reflect nearly a half-century of progress. It’s well past time for them to act. Fortunately, school bus manufacturers have adopted flammability resistance test procedures that are more stringent than the federal standards; however, stronger federal standards are important to setting a consistent high bar for school bus fire safety. Get it done!
Students are safest when riding the bus, not the family car. Drivers must be medically and physically fit. Buses should be equipped with critical life-saving technology. School districts should review their policies and ensure compliance of equipment, safety training and driver fitness – NO exceptions. Parents should be asking school districts if they comply. Our children deserve that!
The full investigation report for the Oakland, Iowa, school bus fire is available here.
For more information on NTSB school bus investigations and safety recommendations visit www.ntsb.gov/schoolbuses.