Falling soda cans and other dangerous distractions

Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher
Posted on November 1, 2002

Let's not kid ourselves. Every now and then we do incredibly stupid things behind the wheel of our personal vehicles. On more than one occasion, I've nearly gotten into accidents while consulting a map en route to an appointment. The wise thing to do would have been to pull the car over to the side of the road and then check the map. But you know how it is, you're in a hurry and you're sure you can drive and read a map simultaneously. Suddenly, you're veering into an adjacent lane. If you're lucky, there's no other car trying to occupy that same physical space. If you're not. . .

Which brings me to my point. A bus driver in Standish, Maine, recently drove her bus into the side of a house because she tried to do two difficult things at once — catch a falling cup of soda and drive a school bus. During the lunge for the beverage, she apparently hit her mouth on the door opener. That's when things got interesting. Disoriented, she accidentally pressed the accelerator pedal rather than the brake and rammed the bus into a house.

Got lucky, this time
Fortunately, only two of the 30 children on board required medical attention. They were treated for abdominal and neck pain and released. The driver reportedly cracked a tooth when she grabbed for the beverage cup, but was otherwise OK. The collision badly damaged the front end of the bus and the foundation of the house. The bus' engine caught fire after the crash, but alert neighbors were able to douse the flames.

In 1996, a similar accident didn't end so benignly. A bus driver for Flagstaff (Ariz.) Unified School District lost control of her bus while handling a soda can. The bus veered off the highway and rolled over. Two students were permanently disabled in the crash. The parents of the students sued the school district, which agreed to pay a $26 million settlement.

The common denominator in these crashes is drinking and driving, so to speak. Both drivers were distracted by beverages they brought with them on the bus. In the Maine case, the driver had apparently rigged some kind of beverage holder adjacent to the steering wheel. While making a turn, the cup started to fall. You know the rest. I don't know the details of the Arizona accident, but the driver should not have been handling a soda can while driving.

A common-sense approach
The most sensible policy would be to prohibit drivers from bringing beverages aboard their buses. But I know that's not a very realistic solution. Long routes or hot days might necessitate the availability of water or some other beverage. However, common sense would dictate that a driver should never drink a beverage while the bus is in motion. In addition, drivers should never be allowed to rig their own cup holders.

Although it's instinct to try to catch something that's falling, perhaps drivers should be coached to ignore minor distractions such as falling beverages. After all, it's much easier to clean up a spill than it is to have a dentist repair a broken tooth, mechanics repair a damaged bus and contractors rebuild the foundation of a house.

You might argue that beverages are common aboard school buses and that it's a rare accident that involves that beverage, but I would argue that there are plenty more "close calls" involving those beverages than we will ever know. Let's not take any chances. Remind your drivers not to drink while the bus is in motion. Even better, encourage them to leave their drinks in the refrigerator in the drivers' lounge. They'll be nice and cold when they get done with their runs.

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