A veteran North Carolina school bus driver was praised for mitigating a crash in which her bus was struck and rolled over by a car heading in the opposite direction.
The incident occurred around 7:30 a.m. local time on Monday, Dec. 17, as the bus was headed to West Alexander Middle School, with 19 students aboard. Master Trooper Jeffrey Swagger of the North Carolina Highway Patrol said that the offender crossed the center line and struck the bus near the rear wheel on the driver’s side. The impact caused the school bus to continue off the roadway and roll onto its side.
One student explained her experience to local news station WSOC-TV. “I was talking to my friends and then I heard people screaming. And I look up, and the bus is doing like this,” she explained, making a back and forth motion with her hand. “And then I look, and we’re on the side.”
Trooper Swagger shared that the school bus driver, whose name the district declined to provide at this report, did not have much time to respond. Still, her efforts elicited the praised of Renee Meade, the Alexander County Schools director of communications and public information. As a 17-year veteran of the job, the driver was able to apply defensive driving techniques to lessen the impact of the crash.
“With her defensive driving skills, she did prevent that bus from (immediately) rolling because she was able to keep it on the road. Where it actually turned onto its side was a far better location than if she had lost control when they first had impact,” Meade explained.
“A well-skilled driver is our greatest asset on a bus. She was a quick thinker—I just can’t say enough about her,” Meade stated. She added that while those driving skills may not have been a specific part of the district’s training or retraining process, they stemmed from job experience.
A press release from the North Carolina Highway Patrol said that 13 students and the bus driver were taken to various hospitals by EMS units from Alexander, Catawba and Caldwell counties. Injuries ranged from bumps and bruises to broken bones, plus one head injury, although none appear to be permanent, Trooper Swagger confirmed.
One female student was triaged in critical condition by the Highway Patrol’s onsite response team, but was officially listed in serious condition when she got to the hospital. West Alexander Middle School stated on Tuesday that the student “is recovering well, receiving care, and remains in stable condition,” with plans to go home on Wednesday.
Meade also highlighted the way the community came together to care for the school bus occupants after the crash. “Everybody working together as a team—the emergency services, the communication they had with the school system, and all of that—really made a difference in the final outcome of that whole situation,” she noted. “We’re thankful we had the right folks in place to be able to take care of what needed to be taken care of at that moment.”
The motorist who hit the bus, 56-year-old Kimberly Austin, was charged with Driving While Impaired and driving left of center, but was not initially arrested. The Highway Patrol later revealed there was a child in her car when she hit the bus, and that a second child had also been in the car shortly before that.
On Tuesday, the Alexander County Sheriff’s Office arrested Austin and additionally charged her with two counts of child abuse. The investigation continues in partnership with the Highway Patrol.
Law enforcement used the incident to highlight the importance of being careful while on the road during the holiday season. Trooper Swagger noted that Austin’s poor choice “not only affected her life but also put the lives of all the children on the bus, including the driver, at risk.”
There has been much discussion over the addition of electronic stability control capabilities and collision mitigation technologies onto school buses, largely in light of recent school bus crashes and rollovers that sometimes resulted in passenger deaths. However, Trooper Swagger stated that neither technology would have been likely to help avoid the crash or rollover in this incident, “based on the type of impact and the area of the roadway.” He noted that “the main impact to the bus was with the left rear wheel.”
Meade said that the district was not currently discussing the addition of ESC or collision mitigation to its buses.
The school bus was also not equipped with seat belts. “Any time we have a restraint device that keeps us in our seats in a collision, that is going to leave us less likely to be injured,” Trooper Swagger said.
Meade told STN that the district has “had conversations” about school bus seat belts but does not plan to implement them “until we get that recommendation from DPI or the state transportation authorities.”
“We have just not seen enough data indicating that it would be the most positive thing,” she stated. “In this situation, if they were in lap/shoulder belts, they would have been dangling. They wouldn’t have been able to get out on their own. Somebody would have had to come in and get them out individually. There are pros and cons.”