The National Transportation Safety Board said eliminating or limiting student crossing to and from school bus stops as well as improved training to identify route hazards could help avoid child fatalities and injuries, like those that occurred on Oct. 30, 2018, during an illegal passing incident in rural Indiana.
NTSB released its final investigative report into the Rochester County incident on Tuesday and determined that the failure of motorist Alyssa Shepherd to stop for a Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation bus coupled with the district’s failure to safely assess the rural student pick up contributed to the deaths twins Mason and Xzavier Ingle, 6, and their stepsister Alivia Stahl, 9, as well as the multiple broke bones suffered by Maverick Lowe, 11, that required 20 surgeries to address.
The school bus driver waived the students across State Route 25 in rural Rochester County, which has a posted speed limit of 55 mph, at approximately 7:12 a.m. local time. Moments later, Shepherd driving a 2017 Toyota Tacoma struck the students at 41 mph, NTSB investigators concluded.
A jury found Shepherd guilty last year on three felony counts of reckless homicide, one felony count of criminal recklessness and a misdemeanor count of passing a school bus and causing injury when the stop arm is extended. She is currently serving a four-year prison sentence.
Of the 12 safety recommendations issued by NTSB on Tuesday, two were assigned to the Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation. NTSB asked the district to implement a process to track school bus driver and parent or caregiver complaints regarding the safety of school bus routes and stops, as well as any other safety concerns about school bus operations. NTSB also called on the school district to train its school bus drivers and students on safe crossing procedures, including the crossing hand signal and danger signal given by the driver.
In response to the crash and the NTSB investigation, the Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that it has implemented a transportation safety review committee that meets on a regular basis. The committee includes Fulton County Sheriff Christopher Sailors, Kosciusko County Sheriff Kyle Dukes, school transportation officials, highway officials, school bus drivers, and representatives of the district board of trustees.
Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation did not respond to questions as of this report about if it has implemented a tracking process for transportation complaints or trained school bus drivers differently on student crossing procedures, including how they give hand signals to students and waive them across the roadway.
NTSB also concluded that the Indiana Department of Education did not provide school districts with adequate training on how to assess risks at school bus stops, according to industry practices. NTSB is advocating for the state office of school transportation to supplement its existing training program for school transportation directors with a new module on how to assess the safety and risks of school bus routes and stops, according to industry best practices.
Indiana Department of Education spokesman Adam Baker told School Transportation News on Tuesday that the state now provides updated guidance on school bus stop selection as a result of Senate Enrolled Act 2, which became a law last year.
“…[W]e cover this during new driver training and our Transportation 101 course for district directors,” he added.
Baker explained that the state will specifically prioritize two elements of the training.
“First, we will augment what is necessary in our training to ensure our districts and drivers understand their roles and responsibilities, and the importance of working to keep our children safe,” he added. “And second, while our state transportation association, School Transportation Association of Indiana (STAI), has already started working with the Indiana Association of School Business Officials (IASBO) to provide a certification for transportation directors that addresses NTSB’s recommendations. We will work with both STAI and IASBO to ensure consistent training is provided during their certification process.”
The 2015 National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures manual also outlines several best practices that school bus operators nationwide should follow, including the route planning and bus stop selection, identification of route hazards and vulnerabilities at bus stops, and proper student loading and unloading procedures, which includes waiting for the driver to signal the student across the street when it is safe to do so.
NTSB asked the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, and the National School Transportation Association to inform their members of the circumstances surrounding the Rochester, Indiana crash as well as similar fatal incidents that also occurred in late October 2018 in Baldwyn, Mississippi, and Hartsfield, Georgia, and involved students crossing the road to and from school bus stops.
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NTSB also recommended that the three industry associations to advise its members to:
- Ensure that school transportation directors and others involved in evaluating school bus routes and stops complete training on how to assess the safety of school bus routes and stops, according to industry best practices.
- Train their school bus drivers and students on crossing procedures, including the crossing hand signal and the danger signal, which are to be used when a student roadway crossing cannot be avoided.
- Continue to coordinate with local law enforcement agencies to conduct educational and enforcement activities aimed at reducing illegal school bus passing.
Currently, 22 states authorize districts to install video cameras on school buses to record incidents of illegal passing and to use that data to issue citations. NTSB asked the other 29 states and the District of Columbia to enact similar legislation.
NTSB recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration include school bus operations when evaluating automated driving systems on public roads as well as evaluate the effectiveness of technologies designed to reduce the frequency of illegal school bus passing incidents. NHTSA is already working with a contractor on such a project.
NTSB also renewed its calls on NHTSA to develop minimum performance standards for connected vehicle technology for all highway vehicles, require that technology to be installed on all newly manufactured highway vehicles, and incorporate pedestrian safety systems, including pedestrian collision avoidance systems and other more-passive safety systems, into the New Car Assessment Program.
The final report of NTSB’s investigation was released digitally Tuesday rather than hold an in-person board meeting, due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Editor’s note—This article has been updated with a statement provided to School Transportation News by Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation.