The National Transportation Safety Board discussed in a webinar on Wednesday the factors leading up to the fatal Rochester, Indiana, school bus crash, and the safety measures that can be implemented to help mitigate illegal passing incidents going forward.
On Oct. 30, 2018, at around 7:12 a.m. on Indiana State Route 25, 10 students and a parent were waiting for their school bus around 43-feet away from the roadway. The individuals were inside the driveway of a mobile home park and visibly hidden behind the buildings from the south side. The Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation school bus stopped and reportedly activated its warning lights and stop-arm The bus driver then signaled the students across the two-way roadway and toward the bus. The posted speed limit was 55 mph.
The school bus reportedly was equipped with wig-wag headlights and a rooftop strobe light, but there was no indication the latter was on at the time of the crash.
Indiana Department of Education spokesman Adam Baker told School Transportation News a strobe light is standard on all school buses purchased in Indiana, and the equipment is used at a district’s discretion.
However, the school bus driver attempted to warn the students not to proceed, after he noticed a southbound vehicle traveling in the opposite direction that was not going to stop. The bus driver reportedly honked the horn, but the students entered the roadway anyway, apparently because they didn’t know what the driver meant.
Moments later, Alyssa L. Shepherd, who was 24 years old at the time, struck and killed three siblings, 9-year-old Alivia Stahl and her two twin stepbrothers, Mason and Xzavier Ingle, 6. A fourth student, Maverick Lowe, 11, suffered multiple broken bones and underwent 20 surgeries.
NTSB concluded that the probable cause of the collision was Shepherd’s failure to stop for the school bus for unknown reasons, as well as the Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation’s inadequate safety assessment of school bus routes and failure to establish a clear policy for school bus drivers to follow in determining when it safe to signal students across a roadway.
NTSB indicated that no medical issues, cell phone usage, driver distraction, vehicle malfunction, or driver impairment played a role in the crash. There was adequate visual information available to alert Shepherd of a school bus stop, yet she failed to identify it. In fact, Shepherd passed two warning signs prior to the stopped school bus.
At 1.8 miles from the point of impact, she passed a “School Bus Stop Ahead” sign by the side of the road. At 868 feet prior to impact, she passed an additional signed marked “Watch for School Bus.”
However, Shepherd claimed she did not know the vehicle in the roadway was a school bus, until she saw the children crossing in front of her. By then it was too late. She reportedly didn’t start to decrease her speed until 2.8 seconds before striking the students. NTSB said the speed of her pickup truck at impact was 41 mph.
The weather was also not a factor, and the roadway was dry and straight, NTSB investigators concluded.
NTSB also stated that additional education and enforcement materials would be effective strategies to reduce school bus stop-related crashes. Types of enforcement and educational materials include campaigns, service announcements, back-to-school safety tips, school bus safety videos, public safety announcements, and state driving manuals.
However, NTSB also stated poor routing conducted by Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation was also to blame. The routes at the time were reportedly planned by school bus drivers, and this particular route was handed down from a previous driver who had left the district.
STN reached out to Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation for additional information but has not heard back as of this writing. STN specifically asked if the district has put any procedures in place that address NTSB recommendation, but has not heard back as of this writing.
However, the next day, the bus stop location was updated from stopping on the state highway to instead having the driver go into the mobile home park.
The route included 18 stops, two-thirds of which required the children to cross the roadway to board the bus. There had reportedly been one other incident on this route before when a commercial truck passed a stopped school bus. The director followed up locally with the company involved.
Meanwhile, in response to the crash, Tippecanoe’s neighboring district Rochester School Corporportation eliminated student crossings on all of its routes.
At the 2018 STN EXPO Indy last June, Superintendent Jana Vance relayed that she was on the scene of the crash on Oct. 31. She said it gave her a sense of urgency to update the district routes the very next day. On Nov. 1, all Rochester School Corporation routes were changed to same-side pickup and dropoff.
Meanwhile, NTSB also found that training was lacking at both the local school district and the state level. School bus drivers are required to pass a basic certification course. However, it did not include information on training for route risk assessment.
Baker relayed that the Indiana Department of Education now provides guidance on bus-stop selection, per Senate Enrolled Act 2 that became law last year. The information is also covered during new driver training and in the “Transportation 101” course for district directors.
NTSB also identified what it referred to as inconsistencies in the transportation director training. “Transportation 101,” was not mandatory, and at the time of the crash, and less than 2 percent of all directors statewide had taken it.
However going forward, Baker said the IDOE will be prioritizing two things.
“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 said. “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.”
Student training does include the universal crossing signal, as recommended in the National School Bus Specifications & Procedures. But students also need to be trained on what to look or listen for from drivers, when a vehicle does not stop.
NTSB investigators reported similar findings in two other school bus crossing crashes. On Oct. 25, 2018, in Hartsfield Georgia, two students were crossing a rural state roadway at 6:45 a.m. to board their school bus. There was no supplemental lightning present, and the posted speed limit was 55 mph. A motorist passed the school bus and hit and killed 10-year-old Noah Palmer, who was declared brain-dead an hour after the accident and died from his injuries. His 7-year-old brother recovered. The motorist later claimed to have never seen the school bus.
Meanwhile, on Oct. 31, 9-year-old Dalen Thomas was crossing a two-way roadway at 6:36 a.m. in Lee County, Mississippi, to board his waiting school bus, when he was hit by an illegal passer. There was no supplemental lighting and the speed limit was 55 mph. Thomas was airlifted to the hospital and was pronounced dead later that day.
Technologies to Prevent Illegal Passing Accidents Going Forward
In conclusion, NTSB called on several agencies and the Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation to improve its safety. These included 12 new safety recommendations and three reiterated safety recommendations covering the areas of education and enforcement, school bus route planning, and training and technology.
NTSB discussed the epidemic of illegal passing and ways that it could potentially be stopped going forward. These technologies include collision mitigation technology, connected vehicle technology and pedestrian Automatic Emergency Braking systems.
Specific technology that could improve school bus safety includes supplemental lighting, which would improve student viability and give students a clear walking pathway, as well as predicative stop-arm technology, which monitors approaching traffic and gives an audible warning if it detects a vehicle isn’t going to stop.
NTSB also called on 26 states and the District of Columbia to enact stop-arm camera legislation, allowing the use of cameras to catch motorists illegally passing a stopped school bus.
Related: Safety Resources
Find more information on NTSB’s specific recommendations to select agencies and their response in a recent STN article, NTSB: Lack of School-Bus Stop Awareness Caused Fatal 2018 Indiana Collision.