A recent CBS News report, which draws attention to a “stunning lack of oversight” of school bus drivers nationwide by describing several recent incidents of criminals behind the wheel, is incomplete and contains several inaccuracies that could alarm parents to the point of needlessly removing their children from school buses, an industry expert told STN.
The segment aired on the June 27 edition of the CBS Evening News and the following day on CBS Early Morning.
Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, pointed out a claim made by reporter Kris Van Cleave and producer Megan Towey that their investigation found, on average, one school bus driver a week is arrested for crimes ranging from driving the bus intoxicated or on drugs to child sexual abuse and child pornography. Hood agreed that there are far too many of these headlines in the nation’s press, but he also calculated that, based on CBS’s “non-scientific” and “unsubstantiated” figures, only one in 10,000 school bus drivers are arrested each year.
This equates to about 50 of the estimated 500,000 certified school bus drivers nationwide, or 0.01 percent. In comparison, a quantitative study released last year by the National Criminal Justice Reference claims that 1.7 percent of police officers are arrested each year per a population of 100,000 officers nationwide.
Hood said the most significant and dangerous result of the CBS report could be parents pulling their kids off school buses and driving them to school themselves. School buses are the safest mode of transportation to and from school for children, 23 times safer than vehicles driven by an adult and 50 times safer than with a teenager behind the wheel.
“School bus drivers, as the professionals they are, I think they got kind of a bad rap when that report was released. [Those were] serious violations of a few bad actors—we don’t want that more than anybody else—but it wasn’t a very representative report.” Hood concluded.
Van Cleave also reported that there are no federal regulations for hiring or checking the criminal backgrounds of school bus drivers. He quotes Michigan auto accident attorney Steve Gursten as saying, "Truck drivers that are driving heads of lettuce or television sets actually have to meet higher safety standards than the people that drive our children on school buses.”
School Transportation News reached out to Gursten for comment on this story but a phone message left at his office was not returned at this report.
While most student transporters would take umbrage with Gursten's characterization — and the fact that the CBS report failed to mention 37 federal motor vehicle safety standards required of school buses, more than any other vehicle on the road — Hood said Van Cleave and Towey failed to follow up on the reason why there is little federal regulation over drivers beyond drug and alcohol testing and obtaining their commercial drivers licenses. Oversight and regulation of everything else, he added, occurs primarily at the state level.
School Transportation News found articles written by Gursten and published on his website that blame the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for this lack of oversight, as the agency exempts most school bus drivers and school buses from hours-of-service regulations, vehicle maintenance and repair, bus inspections, and insurance and liability. These regulations only apply to interstate trucking and bus operators and some private bus contractors, not public school districts. FMCSA does, however, enforce drug and alcohol testing and driver license certification for school bus drivers.
However, the CBS report failed to make any of these distinctions.
The school bus industry also self-regulates via the National School Bus Specifications & Procedures that are voted on or ratified every five years, Hood added. These standards include all school bus vehicle and driver operations, including driver qualification and on-the-job responsibilities. They subject all bus driver applicants to criminal background checks. Hood explained that, once hired, drivers must undergo pre- and in-service training, random checks or even surprise real-time checks for DUIs and such problems that can then be dealt with immediately.
STN reached out to the National Association for Pupil Transportation, but at the time of this writing it had yet to respond. However, last spring, NAPT Executive Director Mike Martin wrote in School Bus Fleet regarding a national driver shortage cited by the CBS report: “School bus drivers not only must have a CDL; they must pass repeated drug screens and criminal background checks, and some districts have even more requirements. And, unlike driving your average commercial truck, the school bus 'cargo' is as special as it gets."
Van Cleave and Towey presented a statistic in their report that 22,000 school bus crashes occur each year, with 10 children injured every day. But they did not qualify where they obtained this data. The American Academy of Pediatrics said in 2006 that an estimated 17,000 students are transported to emergency rooms each year as a result of school bus crashes. Prior to that study advocating the use of lap-shoulder seat belts on school buses, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 96 percent of an estimated 8,500 to 12,000 children injured in school bus accidents annually are considered minor, i.e. scrapes, bumps, bruises, etc.
School Transportation News editors browse daily news articles on school buses and student transportation. They regularly find several articles on school bus crashes occurring nationwide, but on closer examination the majority are relatively minor incidents that are in most cases caused by another motorist. Yet they are reported as a “school bus crash” because a school bus was involved, even when the incident has nothing to do with the bus driver’s conduct.
The CBS report also did not mention that schoolkids are in more danger outside the bus than they are in it. The American School Bus Council says, “Nearly two-thirds of school bus-related fatalities of school-age children occur outside of the school bus.” And NASDPTS estimates from individual statewide counts conducted each year that 10 million motorists illegally pass stopped school buses that are loading and unloading students. On average, 16 students a year are killed at or near school bus stops, either by a motorist who illegally passes the school bus stop or by the school bus itself. CBS failed to investigate this issue.
Meanwhile, about six children are killed each school year in an actual school bus-related crash. According to the National Safety Council, the national school bus accident rate is 0.01 per 100 million miles traveled, compared to 0.04 for trains, 0.06 for commercial aviation and 0.96 for other passenger vehicles.
It is also noteworthy that Hood spoke with producer Towey on this subject and offered to go on record, but no information he provided made the report. However, Van Cleave remarked at the conclusion of the segment that, "The school bus industry refused all our requests for interviews."
In unrelated news, CBS News announced in late May that Scott Pelley is out as anchor of the Evening News, with numerous reports indicating low ratings as the reason. Pelley returns to his previous assignment on 60 Minutes. Pelley did not anchor the telecast that featured the school bus story this week, but Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O'Donnell anchored the CBS Early Morning when Van Cleave's and Towey's report aired the next morning and applauded the report.
Ryan Gray contributed to this report. Stay tuned for additional industry feedback on the CBS News story.