A mistake that can be fatal

The tragedy took place just blocks from our home.

An 86-year-old man in a Buick Le Sabre struck a stopped car, continued through an intersection and drove through our local farmers market, striking pedestrians and vendors’ displays before coming to a stop.

The accident, on a summer afternoon in 2003 in Santa Monica, Calif., took the lives of 10 people and injured 63 others. Fortunately, none of my family members or friends was at the scene, but the sting of emotions — shock, anger, fear — infiltrated the community.

I mention this horrendous accident because it was brought up by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as it discussed some recent school bus crashes. The common thread is “pedal misapplication,” which is when a driver mistakenly hits the accelerator instead of, or in addition to, the brake pedal.

Accidental acceleration
After investigating the Santa Monica accident, the NTSB found that the probable cause was pedal misapplication on the part of the Buick driver.

As we detail here, the NTSB has produced a special investigative report on pedal misapplication that focuses on a few school bus crashes from the past several years.

One was the 2005 accident in Liberty, Mo., in which the driver lost control of her bus and hit two vehicles, killing two motorists and injuring at least 23 students. The driver reportedly told officials that she could not stop the bus.

Another accident covered in the report (a synopsis of which was available at press time) was at a Falls Township, Pa., high school in 2007. A school bus suddenly accelerated, struck several students and then crashed into a retaining wall. Twenty students were injured.

The NTSB determined that pedal misapplication by the school bus drivers was the probable cause of both of those accidents.

NTSB has now recommended that the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) and the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) advise their members of the dangers of pedal misapplication and to consider driver refresher training and suggested mitigation strategies.

After the NTSB announced its recommendations, NAPT said that it would include a new workshop on pedal misapplication in its upcoming conference in Louisville, Ky. The association also noted that it held a workshop covering the topic a few years ago.

At the NASDPTS conference, also to be held in Louisville, NTSB staff member Dennis Collins is scheduled to present the agency’s findings and recommendations.

Clearly, this is a subject that deserves the extra attention.

A lasting effect
We don’t live in Santa Monica anymore, but when we visited that farmers market in the years after the crash, it was hard to keep the images of its aftermath, which we had seen in the news, out of our heads.

But there was also a sense of security. Where there had been wooden and plastic barricades at the ends of the market area, there were now city fleet cars positioned sideways across the street.

It’s unfortunate that it often takes a tragedy to prompt sufficient safety measures.


Related Topics: brakes, school bus crash

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
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