School buses may be the most distinctive type of vehicles on the road, what with their yellow paint, multiple flashing lights and stop arms. Oh, and that big, bold "SCHOOL BUS" lettering on the front and back.
Sure, there are plenty of other kinds of buses on the road, but all those features mentioned above make a school bus easy to pick out of a lineup, right? One would think so.
Then why is it that from time to time, we see a news story in the media about a "school bus crash" that, upon further inspection, does not actually involve a school bus? Multiple news outlets recently made this embarrassing blunder.
On Jan. 7, four people were killed outside of Springfield, Ohio, when their bus was struck by a tractor-trailer that had lost control and crossed the median of a snowy highway.
Several national and even international media outlets (including one in China!) quickly picked up the story, initially reporting that the vehicle was a school bus. Some even specified that those killed were children.
As more time passed, we at SBF were able to find photos of the accident scene and more accurate reports, including one from the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
As it turned out, the vehicle in question was a white (definitely not yellow!) shuttle-type paratransit bus carrying adults with disabilities. They were returning to a special-needs center where they live from a vocational center.
Unfortunately, the news that there were multiple fatalities was true, although at least one media source had the wrong number. Three of the passengers and the driver of the bus were killed in the collision. The victims ranged in age from 28 to 61.
The truck driver and six of the bus passengers were taken to hospitals to be treated for injuries.
Jumping the gun
It's hard to understand how this school bus misidentification happens. What's clear is that mainstream news outlets typically want to get a story like this out as quickly as possible, but it's sometimes at the expense of accuracy. What good is up-to-the-minute news if some of the key details are wrong?
In the case of the Springfield accident, I also have to wonder whether the story would have spread so fast and so far if it hadn't initially been called a "school bus crash." In the minds of some of these media outlets, that may make it a more sensational story.
But not only does a mistake like this make the media outlets look bad, it could hurt the reputation of the yellow school bus. CNN.com was one source that initially reported it as a school bus crash. So how many people saw the first, inaccurate version but not the corrected version? Inexcusably, a Kentucky news station still had its erroneous report — including a generic school bus image at the top of the page — on its Website at our press time, more than a week after the crash.
Someone should do an article on that. Oh, wait ...