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March 01, 2003  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

What we learned from the Columbia disaster

What we learned from the Columbia disaster

by Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher


Yes, this is rocket science. I’m talking about the Feb. 1 crash of the Columbia space shuttle. The disaster resulted in the loss of seven lives and brought back terrible memories of the Challenger tragedy in 1986, which also claimed seven lives.

Investigators are analyzing scientific data far beyond the understanding of laymen. What they’ll discover is still anybody’s guess. Perhaps the accident was caused by a chunk of hard foam that broke off the external fuel tank during the Jan. 16 liftoff. Maybe the cause will be something much less obvious and perhaps unpreventable.

So what’s the tie-in to pupil transportation?

Even with the elaborate precautions taken before the launch of a space shuttle, disaster still strikes without warning. The key will be to determine why it happened and to prevent another such occurrence. It’s too late, of course, for the friends and family of the seven crew members. Will they ever be able to look up into the night sky without remembering?

More effort is needed
The point here is not to dwell on the misery of those confronted with tragedy. Rather, it’s the effort necessary to avoid tragedies of all types, including those related to school buses.

I’m concerned that the school buses we send out into the streets each school day are not being properly pre- and post-tripped. Again, if the Columbia can meet such an awful fate with such careful scrutiny, what can we expect from school buses given a perfunctory once-over before pulling out of the lot?

I’m not the only one who feels this way. According to a poll conducted at SCHOOL BUS FLEET’s Website (, 81 percent of respondents believe pre- and post-trip inspections are performed inadequately more often than not. And many of the respondents are drivers, who know a thing or two about inspecting a bus. Or do they? Maybe it would be worth the effort to test your corps of drivers on performing a pre-trip inspection. You might be surprised — and dismayed — by what you find.

But it’s not always the driver’s (or mechanic’s) fault if the bus is not properly inspected. Some school districts and contractors fall short in providing the proper training or checking that the inspections are done. Even worse, some bus operators don’t allot drivers enough time to properly perform the inspections, indirectly encouraging them to cut corners.

Drivers deserve to be paid for the full amount of time required to perform proper inspections. I understand that this becomes a budgetary issue, but scrimping in this area is poor risk management.

Don’t take any chances
Nearly every school bus that leaves in the morning to transport children to and from school carries with it a human payload several times larger than the Columbia’s. The seven men and women aboard the space shuttle deserved a better fate. In the coming months, investigators may discover why the spacecraft broke apart miles above the Earth. But here, on the ground, we have to focus on our mission — to continue the awesome task of transporting 23 million schoolchildren safely.

Our nation’s children are amazingly tough and resilient, but the physical laws of mass and acceleration can reduce their youthful advantages into so much dust. Let’s not take any chances. Urge, no demand, that your staff takes its responsibilities to perform pre- and post-trip inspections as if lives depend on their conscientiousness. They do.

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