Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee and Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois are proposing a new version of federal legislation that mirrors National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations that were issued in response to a fatal 2017 school bus fire in Iowa.
H.R. 3959, which was introduced on July 25, adds fire suppression systems, “firewalls,” and enhanced school bus driver oversight to a previous call for three-point seatbelts, automatic emergency braking, electronic stability controls, event data recorders, passenger detection systems and sleep apnea studies.
Cohen’s and Duckworth’s bill, which was introduced in September 2018, did not make it out of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.
This year, NTSB found that a Riverside Community Schools bus driver should have been declared medically ineligible for service, when on Dec. 12, 2017, he backed the bus off of the road and into a ditch. As he attempted to extricate himself from the ditch, NSTB investigators said in June that a fire started in the engine compartment.
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According to the NTSB, the driver, Donald Hendricks, 74, had back surgery scheduled for the following week and could not walk unassisted. He was also on pain medication for degenerative disc disease and was diabetic. NTSB concluded that Hendricks was unable to remove himself from behind the wheel, and that the lone student on board, 16-year-old Megan Klindt, was trying to help him when they both succumbed to smoke and heat.
The new federal legislation that was introduced last week also seeks to amend federal code to require no less than 30 hours of behind-the-wheel instruction for school bus drivers. The training would be performed on public roads with a trained instructor.
Starting Feb. 10, 2020, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) will require all entry-level drivers to complete the prescribed program of theory and behind-the-wheel training.
Last month, FMCSA announced it will delay a new Training Provider Registry until February 2022. The agency said this will provide additional time to complete the development of the electronic interface that will receive and store entry-level driver training certification information from registered training providers.
The new entry-level driver training rules are based on recommendations that were made by a special advisory group. In 2015, the school bus industry told the members that 90 percent of states at that time required pre-service training for new driver applicants.
Additionally, school districts in those states provided an average of 20 hours of behind-the-wheel training and 20 hours of classroom theory training.
In addition, the National School Bus Specifications & Procedures is being updated and is scheduled to be released in May 2020 at the National Congress on School Transportation. The publication is expected to provide extensive recommendations on topics that should be included in behind-the-wheel instruction.
First, the applicants should train in the same type and size of bus that they will be operating on routes. They should also train on defensive driving techniques, procedures for crossing railroad tracks and what to do in a vehicle breakdown.
The specifications do not provide a specific number of hours the driver should be instructed, thereby leaving that determination up to states and individual school districts.
The manual also outlines a list of over two dozen driver pre-service and in-service training recommendations. These range from pre- and post-trip inspections, to distracted driving, loading and unloading procedures to student management, sexual harassment prevention to school bus evacuations. Additionally, the specs recommend physical and mental preparation of bus drivers and ongoing performance evaluations by their employers.
The school bus industry recommends pre- and post-crash screening of drivers, as well as random and reasonable suspicion testing. But in January, FMCSA is poised to implement a new drug and alcohol clearinghouse for commercial drivers. The secure online database will allow FMCSA, employers of commercial vehicle operators, State Driver Licensing Agencies, and law enforcement officials, to identify—in real-time—CDL drivers who have violated federal drug and alcohol testing program requirements.
During its hearing on the Iowa fire, NTSB closed and cited “acceptable action” a previous recommendation made to the school bus industry to raise awareness of the ways to report school bus drivers with medical conditions that make it unsafe for them to transport students.
NTSB also reiterated in its Iowa school bus report a previous recommendation made to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). NTSB wants NHTSA to revise Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 302, to adopt more rigorous performance standards for interior flammability and smoke emission characteristics that are already in use by the aviation and passenger rail industries.
H.R. 3959 also calls for school bus upgrades that are “not less rigorous” than flammability and emissions characteristics performance standards for federally required compartments in passenger airplanes, passenger rail cars and locomotives.
The NTSB recommended that fire suppression systems be installed on all new and existing school buses, meaning retrofits would be necessary. However, H.R. 3959 would only apply to new school buses. The language says the firewall, or more accurately a bulkhead or cowl, must ensure that “no hazardous quantity” of fire or gas can pass through to the passenger compartment.
The U.S. Department of Transportation would be required to issue final rules for most of the equipment within one year of the bill passing Congress and being signed into law.
Within two years, NHTSA would be required to complete studies on motion-activated student detection systems. Also required would be new technology that would alert school bus drivers if students aren’t wearing their lap-and-shoulder seatbelts.