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.
Sergeant offers advice for security response
Maryland State Police 1st Sgt. Keith Runk called for transportation directors to train their drivers and staff for activeshooter scenarios.
As 1st Sgt. Keith Runk of the Maryland State Police spoke in a Summit session, a shooting incident was unfolding in Nevada, underscoring the urgency of his call for transportation directors to train their drivers and staff for active shooter scenarios.
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.