National Transportation Safety Board investigators have determined that Johnthony Walker was not supposed to be driving along Talley Road in the Brainerd section of Chattanooga, Tennessee, when he lost control of his school bus and crashed into a tree.
NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart told reporters Wednesday that investigators will determine why Walker changed course, if he had done so in the past and, if yes, why. The investigation is also centering on Durham School Services, which owns and operates the school buses for Hamilton County Schools and employed Walker.
Technical experts from Washington, D.C. were in route to assist investigators as extensive damage to the school bus is complicating the download of video footage and the engine control module from the 2008 Thomas Built Buses transit-style school bus, Hart said. He added that investigators are interested in learning what the audio from the video might tell them about the crash and any alleged statements Walker or students made prior to the incident.
Hart said that the Chattanooga school bus has three video cameras. One is mounted at the front of the bus point rearward with a view through the student passenger compartment, another is mounted at the rear of the bus pointed forward and a third is mounted above the driver area with a view of the loading door.
“The video is to us not only helpful as accident investigators but we urge the operators to look at the video from time to time to ascertain is this bus is being operated in the way we want it to be operated,” Hart added. “If you see things going wrong, you can act on them before somebody gets hurt.”
Investigators will look for a full download of the bus ECM to provide precise details on bus speed, direction, braking and other driver and vehicle behavior leading up to the crash. Chattanooga Police previously disclosed that Walker was likely driving between 50 and 55 mph in a 30-mph zone.
Hart told reporters that investigators have determined the general crash sequence. The bus first went off the road to the right and struck an elevated mailbox. Walker apparently over corrected and went off the road to the left, striking the utility pole, flipping the bus and crashing into the tree.
Video footage will also assist investigators in determining if three-point, lap-shoulder seat belts could have reduced fatalities or injuries or prevented them outright, the latter being the case in a 2014 school bus crash in Anaheim, California. That investigation led the NTSB to make its most recent recommendation earlier this month that all school buses be equipped with three-point seat belts.
Could Fatigue, Distraction Be a Factor?
When asked about driver fatigue potentially playing a role in the crash, Hart confirmed that Walker worked a second job with Amazon, saying the investigation will eventually determine whether or not it was a factor.
NTSB will also examine Walker’s cellphone records and those of his carrier “as a matter of course” to learn if any data was being transmitted or received at the time of the crash or immediately leading up to it.
Hart said the National Express Corporation and its subsidiary Durham School Services are “cooperating extensively” with investigators as they review accident rates for the company and Walker’s pre- and post-CDL driving history, as well as what Durham knew about Walker and what type of training the company provided him.
The NTSB is continuing to interview witnesses to the crash, and Hart asked for more witnesses to come forward, especially if they happened to have recorded the incident with a cellphone. The NTSB is also interviewing parents of bus passengers to determine any previous complaints made against Walker, as local media previously reported. Hart added that the NTSB will eventually release a “characterization” of all interviews when it publishes its final investigation report, which will likely take at least a year.