WASHINGTON, D.C. — The investigation into a Tennessee school bus crash last year resulted in the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reminding student transporters and states to increase the use of lap/shoulder seatbelts and onboard video cameras for training.
NTSB project manager Meg Sweeney presented the crash factors related to the Oct. 27, 2021 incident in Decatur, Tennessee, and the resulting recommendations to state governors during the last day of the National Association of State Directors of School Transportation Services (NASDPTS) Annual Conference. The crash involved a service utility truck and a school bus with 33 students on board. Neither vehicle was speeding during the crash and road conditions were dry.
Sweeny said that NTSB investigators learned the truck driver was traveling northbound along a two-lane road separated by a double yellow line at about 52 mph when the vehicle’s right wheels drifted off the roadway. The driver overcorrected and the truck crossed the center line, ending up horizontally across the opposite lane. The approaching school bus driver traveling southbound had only two seconds to react and was unable to apply the brakes before slamming into the side of the utility truck at a speed of about 46 mph.
The school bus driver, Lisa Dillard, 53 as well as a student passenger sitting behind the driver, 7-year-old passenger Addicyn Grace Medley, were fatally injured in the crash. The school bus driver was wearing a seatbelt, but the head-on collision.
As previously reported, Dillard and Medley were trapped inside the school bus and had to be extricated by emergency personnel.
Four students in the first three rows were also seriously injured, three of which were said to be “out of position,” the NTSB report stated. There were also no seatbelts of any kind of lap or lap/shoulder belts implemented in the school bus.
The investigation determined that the truck driver, Terry Trammell, 56, had no existing medical conditions that contributed to the crash, and there were no signs of alcohol or cell phone usage. Trammel also had proper experience and training as a truck driver. However, the contributing factor, according to the NTSB investigators concluded that he was distracted by looking in his side review mirror at a Sheriff’s deputy who was following the truck.
Trammell was treated at the scene for minor injuries. He also reportedly assisted with evacuating student passengers from the school bus following the impact.
Further complicating the scene were the road conditions. Sweeney noted that the right lane had a very narrow shoulder, and if a vehicle were to travel off the roadway the downward slope is classified as non-recoverable for the motorist. The road was also already identified by the state as in need of repair. Those repairs were completed within about a year of the crash occurring.
The NTSB is recommending that all newly manufactured commercial motor vehicles with gross vehicle weight ratings above 10,000 pounds be equipped with lane departure prevention systems. Sweeney added that lane departure warning systems would have probably not prevented the crash.
Additionally, the NTSB is recommending NASDPTS, the National Association for Pupil Transportation, and the National School Transportation Association inform their “members of the need to periodically review onboard video event recorder information to ensure that students engage in safe transportation behaviors on school buses, including seating properly and wearing seatbelts when available and that members use this information to improve the bus safety training provided to drivers, students, and parents.”
Sweeney said that the recommendation neither calls for the review of all school bus video in use nor the need to pull footage on a daily or even weekly basis. Instead, she suggested that student transporters review video once a month to observe any driving onboard behaviors by drivers or students reminders that can be used to enhance training.
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In reiterating its call for the use of lap/shoulder seatbelts in school buses, NTSB is sending a letter on the importance of lap/shoulder seatbelts to all state governors as well as copying the highway safety representatives and the national state transportation state directors.
The agency has previously stated that compartmentalization is “incomplete” and “does not protect passengers during lateral impacts with vehicles of a large mass, in rollovers and from ejection.” According to NTSB, an occupant crash protection system should be developed that would protect passengers in most crash scenarios.
In this case, seatbelts would have kept students in their seats, facing forward, as fourteen students were labeled as out of position. Sweeney noted that some forward momentum has taken resulted in terms of lap/shoulder belt adoption. She reminded that since 2019 Iowa is the latest state to require occupant restraint systems in school buses. While Tennessee did not enact a requirement following the Decatur crash, Sweeney shared that the state did create a $3 million grant that school districts can apply to for funding the purchase school buses equipped with lap/shoulder seatbelts.
Sweeney added that the effectiveness of automatic emergency braking was not considered in this crash. The full report will be published on the NTSB website on Thursday.