COVID-19 has changed how we look at our health and safety. In the world of traffic safety, school-bus crashes are relatively rare, but our investigations have shown that effective route planning and ensuring bus drivers’ medical and physical health are critically important to maintaining the school bus safety record.
Bus routes may look different this year with student rotation schedules, limited capacity, and potentially more parents transporting their children to school. When reworking bus routes, transportation directors should assess and improve the safety of routes by identifying and avoiding hazards such as highspeed roadway crossings by students. The greatest transportation risk to children riding a school bus is the illegal passing of school buses at bus stops. The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services estimates that each school year up to 17 million vehicles illegally pass school buses when the bus warning lights are on and the stop arm is extended.
In 2019, the NTSB investigated an illegal school bus passing in Rochester, Indiana. The facts of the investigation revealed the school bus stopped, turned on its lights and extended the stop arm on the north side of a two-lane highway. A pickup truck driving southbound struck four children, killing three. The NTSB determined that contributing to the probable cause was the school district’s inadequate safety assessment of school bus routes, resulting in the prevalence of bus stops that required student pedestrians to cross a 55-mph roadway to board a bus.
School administrators should also take steps to ensure those transporting our children are medically and physically up to the job. Many drivers have not driven a bus since schools closed in March, and their daily schedules have changed dramatically. COVID-19 has altered our sleep and wake schedules, ability to get routine medical checkups, and access to gyms or exercise equipment. Unfortunately, these lifestyle changes may increase the risk of being involved in a crash.
Circadian rhythms may no longer match up with a bus driver’s workday, and fatigue can become a serious and potentially deadly issue. Chronic medical issues may have gone unchecked and new ones ignored. Fitness levels may have declined, which could affect a driver’s ability to perform necessary and emergency tasks. These factors beg school districts to verify their drivers’ fitness for duty before they get back to work and call on drivers to check their own fitness to return to duty.
The NTSB investigated a 2016 school bus crash in Baltimore, where a medically unfit school bus driver suffered an epileptic seizure and lost control of the school bus. In a 2017 fatal school bus crash in Oakland, Iowa, a physically unfit driver was unable to evacuate his teenage passenger when a fire spread through the bus. Both incidents could have been prevented if the drivers—and their employers—had ensured they were fit to safely perform their duties.
As school bus routes are reworked and bus drivers return to work, there are some things that school districts can do to ensure everyone’s safety. Our investigations have resulted in, among others, the following recommendations:
- Use physical performance tests to help identify physically unfit drivers, who have a valid medical certificate but might not be able to perform required safety duties, especially in an emergency.
- Remind drivers to check with their doctors to determine whether their medical condition or the medications they are taking could affect their ability to operate a school bus.
- Remind drivers to adjust their schedules to ensure they get proper rest.
- Publicize the methods available to report drivers with medical or physical conditions that may affect their ability to safely operate a school bus.
- Minimize school bus stops that require students to cross a roadway (especially a high-speed roadway) and, whenever other route hazards are identified, evaluate the safety of school bus stops and routes.
- Ensure school transportation directors and others complete training on how to assess the safety of school bus routes and stops.
- Train school bus drivers and students on crossing procedures, including the crossing hand signal and the danger signal.
Bus drivers are the backbone of the nation’s school transportation system. As children head back to school, we must ensure that drivers and students have the best protection against the spread of COVID-19. However, we must not forget that, as drivers get back to the task of driving school buses and carrying our most precious passengers, their overall physical and medical fitness and effective bus route planning must be a priority to help ensure safety.
Michael Graham was sworn in as the 45th member of the National Transportation Board on Jan. 3, 2020. He began his career in the U.S. Navy as a naval aviator flying A-7’s and F/A-18’s, completing two operational deployments, including Combat Air Patrol missions over Iraq and Kuwait in support of Southern Watch. He received a Navy Achievement Medal for his development of an occupational safety and health program and twice received the Top Eleven Award for best landing grades aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. Graham earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of New Mexico and is a certified airline pilot, with 10,000 flight hours and is type rated in six different Citation models. Prior to joining NTSB, he was the director of flight operations safety, security and standardization for Textron Aviation, Inc.