School bus dragging incidents don't occur often, but when they do they can have tragic results. Earlier this year, a young girl was dragged more than 2,100 feet by her school bus after her backpack was caught in the loading doors.
That student miraculously survived, but an 11-year-old girl in Marianna, Florida wasn't as lucky in 2004. She was killed after her backpack was caught in the loading doors and she was dragged 60 feet. A boy in Lafayette, Louisiana suffered a similar fate four years ago after being dragged 20 feet.
All 28 of the dragging incidents in 17 states recorded by student transportation experts Kathy Furneaux and Peter Lawrence since 2004 could have been avoided but for school bus drivers taking a couple of simple safety steps. Furneaux, the executive director of the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute in Syracuse, New York, and Lawrence, the director of transportation at Fairport CSD in Rochester, also cited an April 4, 1997 article that reported eight students have been killed since 1991, which resulted in the school bus industry voluntarily recalling 160,000 buses to modify the handrail to prevent future deaths and injuries.
Data gathered by Furneaux and Lawrence shows that New York leads the nation in the total number of students dragged with five recent incidents. After three dragging incidents occurred statewide from Dec. 18 to Jan. 20, the New York Association for Pupil Transportation urged its members to re-train drivers on safe loading and unloading procedures at bus stops. The first incident occurred in 2006 in Buffalo, and six years passed before the next incident in Dansville.
So the duo authored a paper in February that investigates why the phenomenon happens and what the industry can and should do about it. Namely, school bus drivers should, "Check the door, once more," Furneaux often reminds.
She often points to the book "The Invisible Gorilla" by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris that shows through research how and why humans can miss details that otherwise appear in plain sight, such as a person dressed in a gorilla suit running through a scene when the viewer is instructed to focus on a specific task or item.
Lawrence adds that Furneaux's "Check the door, once more!" phrase serves to remind drivers to not only look, but also see what is going on around their school bus, especially as parents, the community and especially student riders expect the industry to be perfect "at the moment of truth" during loading or unloading at the bus stop.
"The Invisible Gorilla book points out time and again real examples where the human mind stitches what we expect to see, and blocks out what does not fit or seem relevant at the moment," he adds. "In our industry, if we think or expect that children have cleared the service door without 'seeing,' it is possible that our mind will block out images that are right in front of us, allowing a driver to ignore a child that is stuck in the service door until something gets our attention."
Furneaux's and Lawrence's paper, which they will present at the STN EXPO in Reno, Nevada this July, concludes that today's most common snagging incidents, similar to the handrail design flaw, are possibly caused by the placement of the service door switch, which is commonly located to the let of the driver on the master panel or steering wheel. Furneaux and Lawrence suggest that these switch locations require bus drivers to look away from the door when opening or closing it, which could cause them to lose track of exactly where students are located before they pull away from the stop.
"Simply relocating this switch to a place in the sight line of the service door would allow the driver to look in the direction of the door while operating it," they write. "This, of course, is not the complete solution, but perhaps would contribute to efforts that prevent these service door-draggings from occurring."
This design alteration speaks to the first of the "Three Es" – engineering, education and enforcement – that Lawrence says the New York Department of Transportation employs when discussing how to increase traffic safety.
Expanding on the first "E" of engineering, Lawrence says Ted Finlayson-Schueler of SafetyFirst! in Syracuse, New York has championed that the design of bus routes and stops should be revisited to ensure that further reduce risk of dragging incidents.
He adds that the next "E" of education encompasses improved communication with and training of school bus drivers, student riders and their parents to improve everything from use of crossover mirrors and checking the loading doors before pulling away from the stop to student discipline on the bus and at the stop.
The third "E" for enforcement extends to student discipline on the bus and at stops as well as more stringent targeting of illegal passing violations.
Meanwhile, Furneaux and Lawrence also claim that driver distraction, resulting from two-way radio usage, student behavior and/or traffic congestion, plays a large role in students becoming caught in service doors and being dragged down the street.
"Nevertheless, at the moment the student is exiting the bus, nothing is more important than making sure the service door is cleared and the student has moved no less than 15 feet away from the bus before pulling back into the flow of traffic," added Furneaux and Lawrence.
The researchers suggest a few simple steps school bus drivers can take at each stop to increase bus safety and avoid snagging and dragging incidents. Drivers, they explain, can perform these checks by incorporating a so-called "Rock and Roll" sweep and adjusting their position behind the wheel to check all mirrors and blind spots, as follows:
• Scan all mirrors for students outside of the bus
• Check cross-over mirrors to check for students in front of the bus, near the front wheels and in the service door area
• Next to last in the sequence – Glance back at the service door to look for students before actually moving the bus
• Perform mirror sweep once again before pulling out into traffic