New federal rules attempt to raise safety standards for school bus drivers amid high-profile crashes but can do little to predict future behavior.
Amid the echoes from three school bus crashes that have raised new questions about driver training and behavior, and refueled old arguments on safety equipment, the feds recently announced two Final Rules and issued a strong recommendation meant to prevent the recurrence of two tragedies in November that took the lives of 12 people in all, as well as a 2014 incident that injured 11 students, four seriously.
Two of the crashes were traced to unreported medical conditions of the bus drivers. The third killed six students in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And while still under investigation by the NTSB, the cause of this crash will likely be attributed to the unexplained, undisciplined misconduct of the driver, according to preliminary reports. A final report, which will be heavily influence by both video taken from the bus and the engine control unit, is likely a year and a half away.
The cumulative intent of the new final rules is to sharpen the lens of the microscope under which all potential and current school bus drivers must pass to provide a clearer image of their backgrounds, health histories and skill levels before they are cleared to transport students.
Meanwhile, the cumulative impact of the more stringent rules on an industry that is experiencing a shortage of qualified personnel, might be to exacerbate the problem.
“My gut feeling is it will not be any help in recruiting new drivers,” said Alfred Karam, transportation director for Shenendehowa Central Schools in Clifton Park, New York. Karam added that while the new rules may make it more difficult to recruit drivers, he is not willing to sacrifice quality for quantity.
“Just like everybody else, we are short on drivers, but I do not let the shortage dictate who I hire,” he said. “I’d rather deal with the shortage than with a driver that should never be behind the wheel of a school bus.”
According to Tennessee State Director of Transportation Lt. Ray Robinson, his state is no different from any other. “There is a shortage of drivers across the nation,” said Robinson, a state trooper. “I would be shocked if there are any transportation people across the nation that can say they’ve got more drivers than they know what to do with.”
The backlash from November’s fatal crashes involving contract carriers in Chattanooga, as well as Baltimore, has created a feeding frenzy of criticism with everybody vying for a seat at the table. One newspaper headline asked parents, “Is your kid’s school bus driver safe?” An investigative report by NBC found thousands of traffic violations by hundreds of drivers in New York City and Miami that went unpunished, with the guilty parties still driving buses. That same investigation revealed nearly 500 traffic tickets by a local government service provider in Dallas that went unaddressed until the findings of the investigation were made public. That’s when it was reported that the carrier, Dallas County Schools, fired 13 drivers and suspended another 229. Further, a scathing editorial in USA Today essentially took everyone associated with student transportation to task, saying the “system for regulating drivers and buses is splintered, making it easier for problems to be missed.”
Peter Mannella, executive director of the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, would not comment on the federal rules until he had studied them. However, he did say there is no excuse for school bus drivers ignoring the law. “School bus drivers should not be violating any traffic laws, we have no tolerance for that,” Mannella said. “Bus drivers are held to the highest expectations.”
Officials in the Dallas Independent School District, a major client of Dallas County Schools, openly criticized the operator’s commitment to safety in a public meeting, with DISD Trustee Dustin Marshall declaring that the vendor had put safety aside and “doesn’t look to protect our children.”
“This is a clear issue where safety is in a downhill spiral,” Marshall said. “Safety, reliability and service is poor and cost is rising. There are very clear alternatives on this one.”
The contract between DISD and DCS is up for renewal next month.
Besides the need for more stringent requirements, the recent crashes have rendered school districts and private school bus companies tight-lipped while they review and reaffirm their transportation policies, training and contractual obligations.
Baltimore City Public Schools terminated its contract with school bus contractor AAAffordable LLC after one of the company’s drivers crashed his school bus into a car and a transit bus, killing himself and five other people on Nov. 1. No students were on board at the time, however, an attendant was. An investigation found that the 67-year-old driver, who had been involved in at least a dozen car crashes over the previous five years, had a history of seizures and other medical issues. He was prohibited from operating a commercial vehicle by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration two months before the incident. A phone call and an email sent to BCPS were unanswered. A call to AAAffordable was met with a referral to their attorneys. Subsequent calls during AAAffordable’s published business hours went unanswered.
Days later, the Baltimore crash was overshadowed by the fatal bus overturning in Chattanooga. New information and findings continue to emerge from that tragedy. No drugs or alcohol were found in the system of the 24-year-old Durham Bus Company driver, yet the bus was off its designated route and traveling an estimated 20 mph over the posted speed limit of 30 mph. The driver is also suspected of using a cellphone just prior to the crash. The bus was carrying 35 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Just days later, a Twinsburg City Schools bus in Ohio with 48 middle school students on board was clocked by a police officer at 50 mph in a 25-mph zone. The driver was placed on leave and subsequently resigned. Superintendent Kathi Powers said the district’s buses have cameras but do not have GPS technology to monitor driver habits. “We’re looking at harvesting that technology to improve our efficiency,” she added.
The FMCSA Rules and the 2017 "Most Wanted"
The first Final Rule announced by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration establishes a national drug and alcohol clearinghouse for commercial truck and bus drivers. The clearinghouse will provide a database of violations of FMCSA policy by commercial driver’s licenses holders. It would require FMCSA-regulated bus companies, medical review officers, substance abuse professionals, and private, third-party USDOT drug and alcohol testing laboratories to record information on drivers who fail a drug or alcohol test; refuses to submit to a test, and who successfully complete a substance abuse program and is cleared to return to duty. This rule becomes effective this month with a compliance date of January 2020.
The second Final Rule from the FMCSA establishes national training standards for entry-level truck and bus drivers. This rule would require CDL applicants to demonstrate their proficiency in knowledge and behind-the-wheel training on a driving range and on a public street. The training must meet FMCSA standards. The rule sets no minimum number of hours for knowledge and driving instruction, but it places the weight on trainers to verify that each CDL applicant is proficient in each phase of the program to gain a CDL. The NSTA had a hand in shaping this rule and has issued a statement in its support. This rule becomes effective on Feb. 6, with a compliance date of February 2020.
The recommendation by the NTSB to NASDPTS, NAPT and NSTA calls for stricter guidelines on bus driver health, and it is somewhat consistent with the FMCSA rule on the drug and alcohol clearinghouse in that it petitions the three associations to “inform school bus drivers of the impact their health may have on the safe transportation of school children, of their responsibility to accurately and completely report their health history and medications and of the legal consequences of dishonesty on the medical examination report,” according to NTSB records. That recommendation, issued Nov. 7, is on the NTSB “Most Wanted List” for 2017. The associations were asked to respond by early next month.
The NTSB recommendation stems from a 2014 incident, when an Orange Unified School District bus with 11 students on board veered off the road and crashed into a tree. All 11 students were injured, with four sustaining major injuries including a shattered spine and a severed toe.
The driver suffered from a medical condition that caused dizziness, seizures and blackouts, and was unconscious when the bus left the road. He failed to reveal his condition and was subsequently charged with one count each of child abuse and endangerment, perjury by declaration and causing great bodily injury. Consistent with this recommendation and provisions in the FMCSA final rules, the NTSB filed subpoenas to gain access to the medical and mental health records of the Durham bus driver in the Chattanooga crash.
The Anaheim crash also resulted in NTSB reiterating a recommendation for lap-shoulder seat belts, as the crash investigation allowed for the review of video to show how the occupant restraints equipped in the bus helped to save lives when the tree intruded into the passenger compartment. While California is the only state with an enforced three-point seat belt law for school buses, many districts nationwide are now individually specifying the equipment.
In the aftermath of the crashes, issues have been revisited concerning not only seat belts, but the reasons school districts choose private carriers, and should parents be involved in the selection of those carriers. School districts opt for private contractors for a number of reasons. Published reports state private contractors owned 34.7 percent of approximately 472,000 school buses nationwide during the 2012-2013 school year, with the balance owned by school districts or states. That figure represents a decrease from 2007-2008, when private contractors owned 35.6 percent of the nation’s school buses.
The question then becomes one of liability. There was no hesitancy by the Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga to share its contract with Durham and to refer all questions concerning fleet operations and transportation employees to the embattled contractor, which in turn is understandably keeping comments to a minimum in view of the ongoing investigation, as well as several lawsuits already filed. “We entered into an agreement for the transportation of our students from school to home and home to school,” said Hamilton Country Schools spokeswoman Amy Katcher. “Durham is responsible for driver training and driver oversight. It is up to Durham to discipline their drivers. They are not our employees.”
Hamilton County’s contract with Durham expires on June 30.
Compliance, Shortages and the X-Factor
School districts generally are already in compliance with the FMCSA rules as far as screening and training prospective drivers, as well as monitoring the behavior of veteran drivers. The concern apparently is with the timely reporting and sharing of background information, an issue some feel the clearinghouse will eliminate.
“The clearinghouse will make the process much easier to obtain past CDL information relative to drug and alcohol testing when the employee was with another employer,” said Josh Rice, transportation director in the New Caney ISD near Houston. “Many private companies and school districts are not prompt in their replies to requests for information and some don’t reply at all. A clearinghouse would be an easy way for school districts to obtain this needed information.”
While school districts cited competition from better-paying employers as the main reason for driver shortages, many have adjusted to the problem. The Clark County School District serving Las Vegas receives major competition for its drivers from local shuttle services, public transportation and limo services, and even neighboring states after the district train and credential the drivers at the district’s expense. It’s a dilemma faced by many districts nationwide.
But Clark County School District is the largest publicly owned and operated fleet in the nation with 1,600 daily routes. Karen Johnson, district transportation safety and compliance officer, said Clark County is down 100 routes on any given day due to driver outages, but it remains in compliance with and even exceeds the FMCSA clearinghouse standards. “We already do the random drug testing with a third-party medical review officer, and we do the random testing,” Johnson said. “If the bus driver tests positive post-accident, pre-employment or at random, our policy is they are dismissed. I think our standards are slightly ahead of the game.”
The X-factor in all this is the unexplained behavior of the bus driver. Increasingly, the industry will turn to video technology as a gauge for current driver safety as well as a potential predictor down the road.
Tennessee’s state director Robinson lamented that even when current checks, balances and training for drivers is correctly in place, it is still difficult to foretell the future behavior of bus drivers. Some act with no apparent explanation, even with laws in place that hold school bus drivers and their employers accountable to a higher standard.
This could prove to be a boon to video surveillance companies, especially those that monitor driver behavior behind the wheel. The major players in the school bus video market have this capability in addition to monitoring the students, but many are ramping up their offerings to hone in specifically on performance behind the wheel as well as on surrounding traffic for both disciplinary and training purposes.
For example, Durham CEO David A. Duke announced the contractor is equipping all Hamilton County Schools buses with DriveCam systems by the time school resumes this month, and Durham will add the technology to its entire national fleet of 16,000 buses over the next two years. It is one of several new safety upgrades being implemented, including a nationwide complaint management system to report concerns with specific drivers and routes, which is already in place in Chattanooga, and the creation of a new safety and data compliance office to continuously review driver and vehicle data.
“Looking at incidents across the nation, incidents of children that are hurt and sometimes killed in crashes that could have been prevented with proper training, things still happen,” Robinson said.
Martin Slife, principal consultant for pupil transportation in Illinois, where Durham is based, agreed.
“You can train and train until you make the training second nature, but if someone decides not to follow the rules, I don’t know how you train for that,” he said.