After five months of in-person meetings, the Ohio School Bus Safety Working Group issued its long-awaited final recommendations on school bus safety, which does not include a call for lap/shoulder seatbelts.
Instead, working group members favor continuing to allow local school districts to decide for themselves if seatbelts or other technologies are appropriate. The recommendations also include additional funding be made available by the state “to offset the costs associated with upgrading school bus fleets with safety equipment that meets districts’ specific needs.”
The 17 recommendations are as follows:
1. School Districts should identify, share and encourage bus drivers to participate in professional development opportunities.
2. The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should work with the Ohio Department of Public Safety to create and offer wellness programing specific to school bus drivers. School districts should develop polices to ensure bus drivers can take advantage of this wellness report.
3. School districts should develop school bus driver performance review polices and conduct annual performance evaluations.
4. The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should require and provide a curriculum for six hours of annual bus driver training.
5. The Ohio Department of Public Safety and Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should partner to expand advanced driver training for school bus drivers in Ohio.
6. The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should adopt rules requiring school districts to offer school bus safety orientation to students, parents and guardians at the beginning of each school year.
7. The Ohio State Highway Patrol should initiate collaboration between state and local law enforcement partners to develop law enforcement training on school bus inspections and the most common safety risks for student passengers.
8. The Ohio Department of Public Safety should develop educational materials and wide-ranging public service announcements on school bus traffic safety laws and best driving practices.
9. The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should assess whether it is appropriate to increase the minimum number of required training hours for school bus mechanics.
10. The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should work with the Ohio General Assembly to develop and fund a grant program to help school districts invest in school bus safety features such as, but not limited to, seatbelts. The grant program should be needs-based.
11. The Ohio Department of Public Safety should work with the Ohio General Assembly to strengthen penalties for drivers who violate traffic laws in school zones and around school buses.
12. The Ohio Department of Transportation should support cities, townships, and villages to assess safety conditions on local roads located in and around school zones.
13. School districts should conduct safety audits of their bus routes, bus stops and school pick-up/drop-off sites on school property to reduce safety risks and mitigate the severity of school bus crashes.
14. School districts should engage school bus drivers in critical incident response planning and include them in realistic, scenario based-critical incident exercises.
15. The Ohio State Highway Patrol should hold regular school bus stakeholder meetings to identify and mitigate gaps in critical incident responses to school bus crashes and other bus-related security issues.
16. The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should expand it’s post-crash report to collect additional information and publish the data annually to inform future policy decisions and aid in determining school bus driver professional development needs.
17. School districts should adopt policies that require a thorough evaluation of contracted commercial bus service.
The report released on Wednesday notes that at least 382 of the state’s 611 school districts have at least one large school bus equipped with seatbelts.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine created the Ohio School Bus Working Group in August following the ejection and death of 11-year-old Aidan Clark from his school bus after it was struck by an oncoming truck. The group, comprised of various roles within education and transportation, met six times before issuing its recommendations at the end of January. The report was originally expected to be issued before Christmas. However, it was pushed back due to school closures for the holidays.
A majority of the recommendations are focused on school bus drivers and training available to them, maintenance professionals and the community. The document states that supporting and investing in bus drivers is critical to keeping students safe. A survey of 1,163 school bus drivers statewide conducted last year by working group member Davida Russell, a school bus driver for Euclid Lyndhurst School District, found that drivers are most in need of CPR and first aid training, parent interaction strategies, defensive driving, crisis intervention, and student behavior management.
The working group’s recommendations are broken into six categories: Bus Driver Requirement and Retention, Training and Education, School Bus Safety Features, Road and Traffic Safety, Emergency Response. and Commercial Bus Services.
Related: First Ohio School Bus Safety Working Group Focuses on Drivers
Related: Ohio School Bus Safety Working Group to Investigate Seatbelts Following Fatality
Related: Ohio Recommendation on School Bus Seatbelts Coming in Early January
Related: Ohio PTA Shows Support for Seatbelts in School Buses
Related: Second Ohio School Bus Working Group Focuses on Crash Risk Factors, Lap/Shoulder Seatbelts
The 25-page document discusses the working group’s decision to not require seatbelts on school buses. It states that in serious crashes, seatbelts are “just one of the possible safety measures that districts could employ.”
“Working group members observed there was significant value in the many other types of crash-avoidance technology available for school buses today that can effectively prevent serious crashes from happening at all,” the report continues. “Because school bus hazards vary across school districts, schools must have the flexibility to expend funds on safety equipment that best meets their unique needs.”
In addition to collision avoidance technology like lane departure warnings and electronic stability controls listed in the recommendations, other safety features could include fully illuminated stop arms and school bus signage, converting all lights to LEDs, and bus frames that meet the Colorado Rack Test for structural integrity.
The working group also recommends the creation of a grant program to fund school bus safety features, which could include but is not limited to seatbelts.
However, Ohio House Bill 279, introduced in the General Assembly aims to require occupant restraints be installed on all school buses within five years.
Meanwhile, the working group also recommends that the penalties for drivers who violate traffic laws in school zones and school buses be strengthened. Currently, the fine for passing a school bus in Ohio is $500 for the first offense and repeat offenders may face fines of up to $1,000 and/or six months in jail.
Andy Willison, director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, states in the recommendations that school buses “remain one of the safest modes of transportation to and from school.” He added that school buses are involved in less than 1 percent of all crashes in the state. Prior to the fatal school bus crash last summer, Ohio had not had a death on a school bus since 2010.
“The recommendations outlined in this report should serve as a starting point to prevent more families from experiencing the tragedy of losing a child to a crash on a school bus,” he said, adding that the working group was tasked with how to make school buses safer. “I hope this report will also serve as a powerful reminder that safety is everyone’s responsibility.”