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

Lessons of a tragedy

by Joyce Rhoad


Balancing the needs of a fleet can be daunting. Does your greatest vocational fear stem from a potential need to respond to a school bus collision? If so, maybe you have identified a group of trauma specialists, including psychologists with experience in post-traumatic stress disorder, who will provide services at a moments notice. If not, explore the possibilities of such a group for yourself and others. Excellent procedures for gathering and analyzing information from a variety of sources can be critical in identifying "gaps" in a system of management that may lead to injury, property damage, operational disruptions and financial loss you cannot afford to bear.

Jimmy's story
One winter afternoon in late December my life was affected by a youngster I'll call Jimmy. Jimmy’s life was cut short by a school bus making a right turn onto a well marked, straight and flat residential street. The driver didn’t see Jimmy. It was cloudy, approaching darkness and a nearly imperceptible light snow fell from the sky in the metro area. Jimmy had been riding his bike with another child. Both were on a familiar route in a familiar neighborhood, just blocks from Jimmy’s home.

Having personally experienced the ripple effects (including pain and trauma) of motor vehicle collisions, I wondered who would help Jimmy’s grieving family. I also wondered what kind of psychological services would be provided “on the scene” for both the youngsters on the school bus and those in the area who had witnessed Jimmy fall and the puddle of blood form under his body. As I reflected on how this accident might seem “surreal” for those involved, I remembered trying to counsel drivers and others while gathering details about serious collisions from them before their memories would be contaminated or fade.

In some cases, I suspected drivers would benefit from psychological services to help deal with thoughts that flashed through their minds before impact. Would the driver of the bus that killed Jimmy get appropriate support in a timely fashion? Would he turn help away? Would fear of a lawsuit impair the use of sound information gathering techniques or silence the parties involved?

Balancing risk and the need for facts
How do you balance the need for minimizing liability with the need to gather factual and accurate information to prevent a repeat? When I needed a guiding light to help find my way through this potential legal nightmare, two thoughts came to mind. The first: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The second: “Pay what is owed, not one penny more, not one penny less.” With these in mind I carefully proceeded to document the facts. Potential theories and assumptions could be addressed at a less emotionally charged time.

But when is the right time to talk openly and honestly about the events and circumstances surrounding a tragic death? There is never one cause that leads to a school bus accident. Are you prepared to gather information that will help identify the “immediate” and elusive “root” causes of school bus collisions?

5 principles of safety management
To help prevent school bus fatalities inside and outside the school bus envelope, commit to developing your understanding and use of these five principles of safety management:

1. An unsafe act, an unsafe condition and an accident are symptoms of something wrong in the management system.

2. Certain sets of circumstances can be predicted to produce severe injuries. These circumstances can be identified and controlled.

3. Safety should be managed like any other function. Management should direct the effort by setting achievable goals, planning, organizing and controlling.

4. The key to effective line safety performance is management accountability.

5. The function of safety is to locate and define operational errors that allow accidents to occur. This is accomplished by asking why and searching for root causes of accidents and whether or not certain known effective controls are being utilized.

I attended Jimmy’s funeral. Children shared stories celebrating his life and faith. A part of Jimmy’s spirit lives with me forever. Do our children deserve anything less?

Joyce Rhoad is a loss control account specialist for General Casualty Insurance in Sun Prairie, Wis.

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