Details of bus crashes probed in opening sessions
Two keynote sessions examined several fatal bus crashes — with one of the sessions focusing on the toll on survivors and family members, and the other casting an eye on potential safety improvements.
Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), discussed his agency’s investigations of two similar school bus accidents in 2012.
In the February 2012 crash in Chesterfield, N.J., a school bus pulled into the path of a roll-off truck, which struck the bus and spun it into a pole. One student was killed, and many were injured.
NTSB found that the probable cause of the crash was “the school bus driver’s failure to observe the roll-off truck, which was approaching the intersection within hazardous proximity.”
The agency also cited several factors that contributed to the severity of the crash, including the bus driver’s poor sleep habits, the overloading of the truck and problems with the brake system on the truck.
Also, contributing to the severity of injuries was the misuse or non-use of lap belts by students on the bus, the NTSB found. Some students wore their lap belts properly, but some wore them improperly or not at all.
In addition to the Chesterfield crash, the NTSB analyzed evidence from the March 2012 school bus and truck crash in Port St. Lucie, Fla., in which one student was killed and many were injured. That bus was also equipped with lap belts, and bus video surveillance footage of the incident helped the NTSB in analyzing the performance of the belts.
At the conference, Hart explained NTSB’s recommendations to the school bus industry and federal regulatory agencies. For example, to states that have seat belt requirements for large school buses, NTSB recommended developing a handout for students and parents about the importance of the proper use of all types of passenger seat belts on school buses. Those states were also advised to develop training procedures to show students how to wear seat belts properly.
Another of the recommendations, to the industry’s national associations, is to provide their members with educational materials on lap-shoulder belts “providing the highest level of protection for school bus passengers” and to advise states or school districts to “consider this added safety benefit when purchasing seat belt-equipped school buses.”
Hart showed conference attendees simulations of the Chesterfield crash that depicted how the fatally injured student, who was not wearing her lap belt, “vaulted” out of her seat.
“She was found on the other side of the bus from where she was sitting,” Hart said.
Different versions of the simulation showed how that student might have fared if she had been wearing a lap belt or a lap-shoulder belt. In the simulations, both restraints kept the student in her seat, although the lap-shoulder belt was more effective in keeping her upper body from flailing.
But NTSB stopped short of recommending seat belts for all large school buses. As Hart noted during his presentation, “There’s no single safety mechanism that is the best for every type of crash — that’s the problem we face.”
In the Port St. Lucie accident, the student who was killed was wearing his lap belt, but the seat panel apparently separated from the seat because the locking mechanism was not robust enough, Hart said. Also, that student was seated at the back of the bus and faced high lateral impact.
In another keynote session, attendees watched a documentary on the 1988 Carrollton, Ky., bus tragedy. The film, “Impact: After the Crash,” re-enacted the accident and told the stories of the survivors, those who were killed and their families.
Larry Mahoney, driving a pickup truck with a blood alcohol content of 0.24, barreled head-on into the bus, which was carrying a church group home from an amusement park. Gasoline from the bus’ punctured fuel tank was ignited, and fire quickly engulfed the bus as the passengers scrambled to get through the rear emergency exit.
The vehicle was a former school bus that was built just a few days before the critical 1977 Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for school buses went into effect.
Twenty-seven people — mostly teenagers — died in the inferno.
The documentary was filled with interviews that described the harrowing experience that night and the devastation left in the wake of the bus blaze.
“If you didn’t react instantly, you weren’t going to make it out,” recalled Harold Dennis, who escaped but was severely burned, leaving him permanently scarred.
Still, there were stories of positive turns. For example, Lee Williams, whose wife and two daughters died in the bus, later bonded with Dotty Pearman, whose husband — the driver of the bus — also died. The two eventually married.
Runk gained experience with such situations as part of the team involved in identifying and arresting the perpetrators of the “Beltway Sniper” attacks in Washington, D.C., in 2002.
“[Shootings will] continue to happen, but we can prevent, minimize or end threats,” Runk said. “Parents every day entrust their kids’ lives to you. If someone gets hurt on your bus, you may be the only one who stands between them living and dying.”
Because active shooter situations are often planned, he explained, drivers can potentially prevent incidents by paying attention to what students say and their dress — such as baggy clothing that could conceal weapons — and behavior, and reporting remarks that hint at violence or suspicious behavior to the principal or the police, who can document them, or the parents, to put them on notice.
He also instructed the audience to have a plan in place in all conditions they work in; identify places on routes that may provide a safe haven; include lower-level employees in policy-making and invite feedback.
Additionally, administrators need to give drivers flexibility on district policies to make split-second decisions, such as fighting back or calling 911, he said.
“Where life is threatened, you have the right to defend yourself,” Runk added.
If attacked, Runk said that drivers can employ serpentine driving, hard braking or an intentional crash. He showed filmed demonstrations of these techniques.
Drivers can also deny access and drive away; drive with red flashing lights on; or dial 911, and leave the line open if they can’t talk. Only confront the attacker as a last resort, he added.
Customer service, travel training in special-needs busing
An engaging session at the NAPT Summit explored parent and client perspectives in transporting students with special needs, and what it takes to deliver good customer service.
Panelists Michael Benedict Jr. and his parents, Judith Ann and Michael Sr., provided insight on this issue, speaking from their personal experiences. Pete Meslin, director of transportation at Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Costa Mesa, Calif., moderated.
Michael Benedict Jr. rode special-needs school buses as a student; he now serves as a bus attendant for Provo (Utah) City School District, a role he has held since 2006. He applied for the position with encouragement from one of his first school bus drivers, Una Hebner, who Michael Benedict Sr. said “saw something in Michael and took time to nurture that.”
When Meslin asked Michael Jr. what good customer service looks like, he spoke of Una Hebner.
“My driver would make sure to listen to me and any needs or concerns I had,” Michael Jr. said.
And now, in discussing customer service as a bus attendant, he said, “The key ingredient is taking the time to care about the students.”
Judith Ann Benedict said that for her, good customer service meant knowing that the bus drivers were caring for her son in the same way that she would have.
Michael Jr. also talked about the importance of communication between parents, school officials and transportation officials in providing good customer service. He said that parents can’t feel rushed when providing information about their children’s needs and how those needs may impact their ride on the school bus, and he said transportation personnel have to be willing to “meet them half way” by asking questions, where appropriate, about students’ needs. In addition, transportation officials should make a point to share information about their special-needs passengers with parents and school officials if they have concerns about their passengers.
Meslin asked Michael Jr. what information he shares with parents, and he said he first talks with the student to try to determine what the issue is, and he then talks with school officials about the situation so that they and the student’s parents can work with him or her.
Meslin co-presented another session at the Summit with Judy Shanley, director of student engagement and mobility management for the Easter Seals Transportation Group.
The two discussed the importance of travel instruction for students with disabilities, noting that education about public transportation helps in providing these students with skills necessary for living as independently as possible after they have completed school.
As part of the session, Meslin and Shanley offered strategies for integrating transportation content into students’ educational experience. Shanley urged attendees to think of the school bus as a place to teach students about travel training.
Subjects that can be taught on the bus include math, geography and reading. For example, students could be given bus schedules to help them learn addition and subtraction, and they could be given bus safety materials to promote reading. Identifying landmarks can help students develop their knowledge of geography.
Meslin also noted the need to “break the ‘short bus syndrome’” when transporting students with disabilities. Where possible, he encouraged attendees to use larger buses to transport these students because they are more similar in size to public transit buses, and they have a larger wheelchair and ambulatory capacity.
Tools for tracking KPIs
Using a speed-dating-style discussion format in a session on key performance indicators (KPIs), moderators led groups in sharing information on collecting data for KPIs and how to use them.
The moderators were Michael Shields, director of transportation and auxiliary services at Oregon’s Salem-Keizer Public Schools; Dayna Oehm (pictured at left in the photo), managing partner at The Oehm Group; and Tim Calabrese, manager, operations analysis, at the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Pupil Transportation.
Groups at three tables focused on tools to use to collect data, where to find data sources when getting started, and research on how others use KPIs.
Steve Simmons, NAPT Region 3 director and director of transportation at Columbus (Ohio) City Schools, said the objective of the session was to bring together people at different levels of expertise to share knowledge and help create national standardized KPIs.
Oehm led a discussion at her table on how to standardize and measure data. Attendees discussed how to create surveys and track and identify KPIs for different service types, such as urban and rural.
At Shields’ table, he discussed how to use KPIs to help employees measure their work performance.
“You can empower employees to be self-accounting and set their own goals, but you have to coach them,” Shields said.
Calabrese’s group discussed helpful software programs to collect and manage data, and how to efficiently extract relevant data for district reporting to the board of directors and public.
Big changes in store for 2014 Summit
NAPT will roll out a new format for next year’s Summit that will bring together programs for transportation directors, maintenance personnel and special-needs transporters — all in a shorter time frame.
In an interview with SBF, NAPT Executive Director Mike Martin explained the changes for the 2014 Summit, which will be held in Kansas City, Mo.
The schedule will be streamlined to four days — Saturday to Tuesday.
Martin said that this is more in line with the time frame of the conference up until 2003, when the addition of pre- and post-conference days inflated the schedule to six days.
“This change reflects feedback from our members,” Martin said. “People just don’t have time to be out of the office for more than three or four days anymore.”
The trade show will be shortened from two days to one. That shift stems from feedback that NAPT has been collecting from vendors. The plan is to hold the trade show for about five hours on Tuesday and to include lunch. Entrance to the trade show will continue to be free for all NAPT members (as well as for state pupil transportation directors and National School Transportation Association board members).
Another major change: NAPT’s America’s Best event for technicians and inspectors will be held at the same time and place as the Summit. Techs and inspectors will take part in the annual skills competition and educational workshops.
Also, America’s Best will be expanded with three new events to test small vehicle handling, equipment handling and interpersonal communication.
Drivers will demonstrate their skills at the wheel of Type A school buses. Equipment handlers will be tested on such operational essentials as the proper use of wheelchair lifts and the proper installation of booster seats. The communication competition will replicate the real-world challenges of transporting students safely.
“We expect these new events to be particularly attractive to people involved in the transportation of students with special needs,” Martin said, “because we will give contestants in these events credit for completing our SNT 103 training requirement, which is an essential component of our new certification program for people involved in the transportation of students with disabilities and other special needs.”
After a full day of freely choosing from the expanded educational options, conference delegates will all come together each night for a dinner and networking event. “This is a critical component of every successful conference,” Martin said, noting that the evening events will be restructured to make sure delegates and vendors feel comfortable interacting with each other, regardless of their affiliation.
“Our members tell us they highly value any time they can get together and exchange ideas,” Martin said.
All the groups will also convene on Tuesday for a morning general session, the trade show and then the awards banquet, where the competition winners and other award recipients will be honored.
Charles Poland honored posthumously for heroism
Outstanding pupil transportation professionals were in the spotlight at the annual NAPT awards banquet.
The event included a moving tribute to Charles “Chuck” Poland Jr., the Alabama school bus driver who was slain in the line of duty in January 2013.
Poland, a driver for Dale County Schools, was fatally shot while protecting his passengers from an armed intruder, who then took a 5-year-old boy hostage for nearly a week.
At the NAPT banquet, Poland’s daughter Lydia Poland Hancock accepted the Heroism Award on his behalf.
Honorees at the awards ceremony included:
• Heroism Award (sponsored by Blue Bird Corp.) — Charles Poland Jr. (posthumous), Dale County Schools, Ozark, Ala.
• NAPT Distinguished Service Award — Alexandra Robinson, New York City Department of Education’s Office of Pupil Transportation and outgoing NAPT president
• Continuing Education Award (sponsored by Thomas Built Buses) — Donelda Williams, Independence (Mo.) School District
• Special Needs Transportation Award (sponsored by Sure-Lok) — Dr. Linda Bluth, Maryland State Department of Education and past NAPT president
• School Bus Driver Training & Safety Award (sponsored by IC Bus) — Allen (Texas) Independent School District
• SCHOOL BUS FLEET’s Administrator of the Year — Alfred Karam, Bethlehem Central School District, Delmar, N.Y. (see story here)
• America’s Best School Bus Technician: Patrick Maloney, Douglas County School District, Castle Rock, Colo.
• America’s Best School Bus Inspector: Casey Middleton, Tulsa (Okla.) Public Schools
• STN Leadership Award: John Benish Jr., Cook-Illinois Corp., Oak Forest, Ill.
• Check out our photo gallery with shots from the 2013 NAPT Summit and the host city, Grand Rapids, Mich.
• For coverage of more NAPT sessions, including lessons from a danger zone accident and an inspiring speech from para-athlete Victoria Arlen, go here.