Bus crashes: Tough lessons learned

Frank Di Giacomo
Posted on April 3, 2012

One of the tougher parts of what we do at SBF is report on major school bus crashes.

It’s always saddening to go over the details of an accident in which a young student’s life was tragically cut short. One such accident has just happened, and this one hits particularly hard because it took place in my state, New Jersey.

Police in Chesterfield Township said that on Feb. 16, a school bus carrying 25 students was en route to an elementary school when a dump truck struck the driver’s side rear of the bus at an intersection. The impact of the crash then caused the bus to strike a pole.

One student was killed — an 11-year-old girl who was the daughter of a state trooper — and 17 students sustained injuries.

Adding to the heartbreak, the girl who was killed was a triplet, and her two sisters were critically injured in the crash.

In a sign of how big of an impact this accident had in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie made a statement about it. “We are deeply concerned for the students on the bus and their families and can only imagine what they’ve been dealing with in the immediate aftermath of the crash,” he said.

The accident even got the attention of the feds. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent a team to Chesterfield to investigate.

In a press briefing the next day, NTSB investigator Peter Kotowski said that the crash “drew our attention because of the fact that New Jersey is of one of six states that has seat belt requirements on school buses for passengers.” (The state has required lap belts on school buses for two decades.)

So why do we cover tragic accidents like this? Mainly because we want to share with our readers any information that could help in improving school bus safety.

As of this writing, the Chesterfield investigation had just begun, but the NTSB will likely uncover some of the key factors that contributed to the crash and may make safety recommendations related to school transportation.

Earlier in February, the agency issued its report on the fatal 2010 Gray Summit, Mo., crash that involved a pickup truck, a truck-tractor and two school buses.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the initial collision was distraction, likely due to text messaging by the pickup driver.

The agency found that the second collision, between the lead school bus and the pickup, was the result of the bus driver’s inattention to the forward roadway, and the final collision was due to the driver of the following school bus not maintaining the recommended minimum distance from the lead school bus.

NTSB also found problems with the brakes on both buses, including a 0.06- by 0.03-inch hole in one of the brake lines.

After the 2006 crash in Huntsville, Ala., in which four students died, an alarming finding was that the school bus driver was not wearing his seat belt, which allowed him to be thrown from the bus before it plunged 30 feet off of a highway ramp.

Examining these types of tragedies is upsetting, but if there are lessons that can be learned, they need to be exposed.  

Related Topics: fatalities, NTSB, school bus crash

Comments ( 1 )
  • Charlie Hood

     | about 7 years ago

    Well said, Frank. I couldn't agree more with the importance of SBF covering all kinds of school bus transportation news, especially stories that hold valuable lessons. The NTSB model, which has been so successful in aviation and highway safety, is to look at all contributing causes of crashes and target recommendations toward mitigating those causes. In a matter of personal interest to me, when there's a boating tragedy, I always want to know what went wrong. Did someone put out a stern anchor and flood their boat, did they not have a working VHF radio, or what? Tragedies can teach unfortunate, but valuable, lessons that we should heed and pass on to everyone in our profession. Yes, school buses are safe as houses, but we should listen to the new mantra from NHTSA that states should all be working toward zero fatalities. Unrealistic? Maybe, but what's the alternative? Thanks again for keeping us informed.

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