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Seeing is Believing

For decades, law enforcement authorities and school transportation professionals have painstakingly reconstructed school bus crashes to determine their exact causes. Some crashes are relatively minor. Others, while more rare, result in significant loss of property or worse.

Such exercises continue to serve a valuable purpose in determining speed, braking (or lack thereof), distraction, and other crash characteristics. But no amount of reconstruction is as good as watching what happened.

This month’s cover captures the moment just prior to a cement pump truck striking a school bus in Bastrop County, Texas, just east of Austin. The incident was the second catastrophic school bus crash occurring within an 11-day span in March. The National Transportation Safety Board is already investigating the first fatal school bus crash, a head-on collision in Illinois on March 11 that resulted in the deaths of three pre-kindergarten students, their bus driver, and the truck driver. For this reason, the agency told me that it would not be investigating the Hays Consolidated Independent School Bus crash in Texas, that occurred on March 22.

Both crashes were head-on collisions, and both resulted from a driver veering across the center line. In the Illinois crash, news reports indicated the school bus driver drifted into the oncoming lane. There is no known video from that crash. The NTSB’s final investigation, which is expected sometime in the next year, will provide details.

But we know the cruel, criminal reality in Texas. Video released by Hays CISD in the days following the crash, and after the cement pump truck driver admitted to consuming cocaine hours earlier, shows exactly what occurred. The dashcam video captures the cement pump truck approach from the opposite lane, then suddenly veer to its left and into the path of the school bus.

A pre-K student died in that collision and resulting rollover, as did another motorist who was trailing the bus. If not for the actions of the Hays CISD bus driver, the crash could have been worse. Her quick reaction to steer to the right likely saved more lives, especially her own. The cement pump driver, allegedly fell asleep at the wheel and doesn’t appear to brake. (The fact that the school bus was not equipped with integrated child safety seats is another matter.)

NTSB has studied similar fatal school bus crashes in the past, and its charter is to learn new lessons from different crash forces, like the one in Illinois, where both vehicles
burst into flames soon after impact. The fact that all the victims died in the resulting fire dictated that NTSB focus its resources there, as the previous fatal school bus fire it investigated—2017 in Iowa—had more to do with a school bus driver who was physically unfit for duty.

But the local investigation continues in Texas. Thanks to the on-board video camera footage, Hays CISD and the entire student transportation industry can learn valuable albeit heartbreaking lessons.

I, like most readers, have not viewed the entire video from all angles and channels, but I did watch about a couple of minutes of raw footage from the dashcam as well as from an external camera mounted on the right side of the bus. It included the audio, which STN removed before posting online. It’s one thing watching the cement pump truck veer into the path of the school bus. It’s quite another to hear children laughing and singing one second and screaming and crying next the next.

More and more school buses are equipped with video cameras, but there are high-profile examples where video is lacking–exhibit 1 and 1a are the nation’s two largest school districts, New York City and Los Angeles, granted both are taking action to implement the technology. Of those school districts that are actively using video, how many have front facing dash cams?

No definitive study exists. But representatives from several school bus video vendors told me that new system orders are increasingly including dash cams. One official told me that dash cams are essentially standard on all projects the company has worked on for the past six years.

The school districts and bus companies that are using dash cams find the video invaluable for driver training and coaching. They are supplementing camera systems capable of capturing all areas inside the bus to monitor student behavior as well as documenting the Danger Zone around the buses when loading and unloading students.

While some incidents are unavoidable, there are proactive lessons to be learned from the footage with live-saving benefits.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the May 2024 issue of School Transportation News.

Related: Georgia School Bus Crash Video Footage Released a Year Later
Related: Texas School District Adopts Accelerated Seatbelt Plan Following Fatal Bus Crash
Related: NTSB Releases Preliminary Report on Illinois School Bus Crash
Related: Truck Driver Admitted Cocaine Use Before Fatal Texas School Bus Crash

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