In addition to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations stemming from student fatalities on or near school buses, the National Association of State Director of Pupil Transportation Services responded favorably to recommendations to prohibit school bus drivers from using cellular phones while behind the wheel, training students on lap/shoulder seatbelts and requiring student passengers to wear them.
NASDPTS responded via a letter addressed to NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt on Thursday. The most high-profile investigation resulted from a fatal incident occurring in Rochester, Indiana, on Oct. 30, 2018, when a motorist failed to stop for a school bus that was loading students.
Four students were struck, three siblings dying at the scene and a fourth student suffering severe injuries, including several broken bones. Within days, two other similar crashes occurred in Baldwyn, Mississippi, and Hartsfield, Georgia. The NTSB issued several recommendations to NASDPTS and other industry associations following these incidents.
NTSB urged NASDPTS, as well as the National Association for Pupil Transportation and the National School Transportation Association, to encourage its members to minimize the use of school bus stops that require students to cross the road, especially a high-speed highway. NTSB also encouraged a safety evaluation of school bus routes and stops at least annually and whenever a route hazard is identified.
Other recommendations stemming from the illegal passing investigations include the reminder that school transportation directors and other professionals should complete training on how to assess the safety of school bus routes and stops, according to best industry practices. Also, the NTSB recommended that NASDPTS advise its members to ensure school bus drivers and students on are trained on crossing procedures, which includes using hand signals to alert students when it is and is not safe to cross.
Additionally, the NTSB recommended that NASDPTS urge its members to continue to coordinate with local law enforcement agencies to conduct educational and enforcement activities aimed at reducing the number of illegal school bus passing incidents, and to make NTSB’s investigations of these crashes’ public to its members.
NASDPTS responded that on April 22 of last year, it forwarded reports on the crashes to all state student transportation directors with a message encouraging members to review and inform all school transportation leaders of the safety recommendations. NASDPTS said it also encourages members to read the NTSB document, “Keeping Students Safe from Motorists Who Pass School Buses.”
NASDPTS noted that the 2015 National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures (NSTSP) contains guidance and recommendations for loading and unloading in the safety zone. And the association conducted annual illegal passing surveys between 2010 and 2019 to create a one-day snapshot taken by school bus drivers of the number of violations by motorists that occur. (The survey was postponed last year due to COVID-19.)
NASDPTS said it also supports additional new initiatives and welcomes opportunities to work with the NTSB and others to promote safety in the following areas:
- Congressional approval and federal implementation of a nationally uniform law for when, where, how, and under what conditions motorists must stop for school buses that are stopped, with student loading and unloading lights activated and stop arm(s) deployed, while picking up or discharging students.
- Adoption of a nationally uniform requirement for the specific, step-by-step procedures that students and school bus drivers must follow during loading and unloading, to include a uniform procedure for school bus drivers to signal students when it is safe to cross and to warn them of hazards.
- Approval of state laws to authorize the use of photo/video enforcement and other technologies to mitigate illegal passing of school buses, based on studies conducted by NHTSA or other agencies.
- Funding for targeted enforcement and awareness campaigns by state and local law enforcement agencies to reduce the incidence of illegal passing.
Addressing School Bus Fires
Following the Oakland, Iowa school bus crash in 2017, the NTSB recommended that NASDPTS members verify that student passengers are educated on how to operate the manual release handle for front-loading doors on school buses during evacuation and training drills.
Sixteen-year-old student Megan Klindt and 74-year-old school bus driver Donnie Hendricks died after a fire began in the engine compartment of the school bus and spread throughout the cabin. NTSB determined that Hendricks was not fit for duty because of a chronic back injury and that school bus fire safety and school bus emergency training were lacking.
NASDPTS stated that it supports NTSB’s recommendation and agreed that student transportation providers should document and maintain records of the timing and content of emergency drills as well as student participation in them. Charlie Hood, who retires this week as NASDPTS executive director, wrote Sumwalt that the organization “also supports the expansion of the recommendation to include instructing students on how to operate the air-operated front-loading (service) doors with which most new large school buses are equipped, and the electrically operated doors commonly found in smaller Type-A school buses.”
Hood added that instruction should be provided as part of school bus evacuation drills that states, local school districts, contractors, and charter schools require for transported students. He continued that NASDPTS has promoted the adoption of Federal Aviation Administration style pre-trip briefings for passengers by the drivers of buses before every field and activity trip.
“Some passengers on-field and activity trips, both adult chaperones and students, are not regular school bus riders and otherwise might not receive the regularly scheduled school bus evacuation instruction and drills,” Hood wrote. “Such briefings should include a review of the location and use of the emergency exit doors, windows, and hatches, and the service entrance door, as well as the proper use and unbuckling of equipped two-point lap belts or three-point lap/shoulder belts.”
In addition, NASDPTS encourages all school transportation providers to review the 2015 NSTSP manual, which includes guidance and several recommendations regarding the frequency and content of emergency evacuation procedures.
NASDPTS also responded to an NTSB recommendation in response to the 2012 school bus and truck collision in New Jersey. The crash occurred when a school bus with 25 student passengers pulled into the path of a large, fully loaded roll-off truck. One bus passenger was killed, while five passengers suffered serious inquires, and 10 passengers plus the driver sustained minor injuries. The NTSB cites two other crashes occurring in 2012 and 2014, in which it said injury severity and death could have been avoided with the use of and proper training on lap belts and lap/shoulder seatbelts.
Following these crashes, the NTSB recommended that NASDPTS develop guidelines and include them in the next update of the NSTSP to “assist schools in training bus drivers, students and parents on the importance and proper use of school bus seatbelts, including manual lap belts, adjustable lap-and-shoulder belts, and flexible seating systems.”
Hood said NASDPTS strongly supports this recommendation and has a long history of supporting lap/shoulder belts in school buses. Last May, it updated its position paper on lap/shoulder belts in school buses, which includes the importance of training, policies and enforcement of required, proper usage of lap/shoulder belts by all passengers and the driver in school buses that are equipped with the technology.
The 2015 NSTSP was also updated to include 13 instances of recommendations and training materials for students and school bus drivers regarding proper usage of both two-point lap belts and three-point lap/shoulder belts, Hood noted.
Hood wrote that NASDPTS also supports NTSB recommendations that formal policies be developed prohibiting cellular telephone use by school bus drivers while driving the bus, except in emergencies. The probable cause of a fatal November 2004 school bus crash in Alexandria, Virginia, was determined to be caused by the bus driver’s failure to notice and respond to posted low-clearance warning signs, due to using a hands-free cellular phone while driving.
NASDPTS stated that student transportation professionals, parents, and students understand the importance of maintaining an unparalleled high level of safety provided by school bus transportation. “We know policies prohibiting cellular telephone use by drivers of commercial motor vehicles, including school buses, are in place, both federally and within states’ laws and regulations, and we are confident that awareness is high among school bus drivers and others regarding the dangers of distracted driving,” Hood wrote.
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He reiterated the adoption of the Final Rule by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that went into effect on Jan. 3, 2012, to restrict the use of mobile communication devices by commercial drivers. On Oct. 1, 2015, the FMCSA confirmed to NASDPTS that the rule does apply to both public and private, intrastate and interstate school bus drivers, Hood said.
Last October, the National Conference of State Legislatures updated its compendium of state laws and regulations on banning the use of phones and texting by motorists.
“While NASDPTS does not maintain an inventory of all states’ laws and regulations on this topic, we are confident state policies often exceed the stringency of those applying to general motorists and meet or exceed the federal ban on use of handheld communications and texting devices by school bus drivers while operating their buses,” Hood wrote. “To ensure reiteration of this important safety message, however, regarding the dangers of distracted driving, NASDPTS is copying this response concurrently to our state director members to remind them of the circumstances of the Alexandria crash and the NTSB’s recommendation. We are also ensuring the NTSB receives a concurrent copy of our memorandum of transmittal to state directors.”