Speakers draw safety lessons from school bus tragedies

Thomas McMahon
Posted on October 25, 2012
The family of Hunter Pitt, who was killed when his school bus ran over him, watches a safety video they worked on with Missouri organizations. On screen is the driver of the bus that ran over Hunter, Willie Leonberger.

The family of Hunter Pitt, who was killed when his school bus ran over him, watches a safety video they worked on with Missouri organizations. On screen is the driver of the bus that ran over Hunter, Willie Leonberger.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Keynote speakers at the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) Summit here on Monday morning shared some powerful safety messages — powerful in particular because they were based on fatal school bus accidents.

Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), addressed recent crashes that the agency has investigated or is still investigating.

In August 2010 in Gray Summit, Mo., a pickup truck ran into the back of a truck-tractor that had slowed for a construction zone. The pickup truck, in turn, was struck from behind by a school bus. That school bus was then hit by a second school bus that had been following. Two people died, and 38 others were injured.

NTSB's investigation revealed that the pickup driver sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes preceding the accident. The last text was received moments before the pickup struck the truck-tractor.

The agency determined that the probable cause of the initial collision was distraction, likely due to a text messaging conversation being conducted by the pickup driver.

NTSB 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 due to excessive focus on a motorcoach parked on the shoulder of the road.

And the final collision, the agency said, was due to the driver of the following school bus not maintaining the recommended minimum distance from the lead school bus in the seconds preceding the accident. “That’s a training issue,” Hart said of the following distance problem.

Cell phone use is a “huge” problem in all modes of transportation, and “it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he told NAPT attendees. “It’s very important to have a corporate policy on cell phone use.”

Hart touched on two ongoing investigations of fatal school bus accidents that occurred earlier this year, in St. Lucie County, Fla., and Chesterfield, N.J. The buses in both crashes were equipped with lap belts, which Hart said made them good candidates for investigation.

“We have not been in favor of lap-only seat belts,” the NTSB vice chairman said.

Also during his presentation, Hart expressed his personal interest in pupil transportation safety.

“I take this issue to heart,” he said. “My 9-year-old daughter rides the school bus every day.”

Another Monday morning presentation also took a hard look at a tragic school bus accident.

Hunter Pitt, a 6-year-old in Callaway County, Mo., was killed in January 2011 when his school bus ran over him as he crossed in front. The boy’s parents later worked with the Missouri Association for Pupil Transportation, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and other state organizations to create a video that explains the accident and emphasizes the importance of school bus drivers staying focused, particularly when children are loading and unloading.

Adding to the video’s impact is an appearance by the driver of the bus that ran over Hunter, Willie Leonberger, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Leonberger, also a pastor, said that a commotion on the bus distracted him as Hunter was unloading, and he also pointed to complacency as a factor.

“I believe when we get into a routine, we can lose our focus on what we are doing,” the former bus driver said in the video. “That accident changed my life and caused a lot of heartbreak and sorrow for Hunter’s family.”

Hunter’s family came to the NAPT Summit for the presentation.

“This ripped our family to the core,” Matthew Pitt, Hunter’s father, told NAPT attendees. He said that the family chose to not remain angry but to “make changes for the better.”

To view the video, go to

Other news from the 2012 NAPT Summit:

David Anderson named SBF's Administrator of the Year

NAPT rolls out red carpet for award winners

Related Topics: cell phones, conferences, distracted driving, fatalities, NAPT, NTSB, school bus crash

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
Comments ( 3 )
  • Bus Driver

     | about 5 years ago

    Monitors should be on all school buses, k thru 5 and middle school as well. I've driven a school bus for ten years and I can tell you that it's impossible to monitor the kids and maintain safe driving standards at the same time. When drivers are distracted this way neither responsibility is given the proper attention. No one working in student transportation would disagree that monitors add improved safety to the school bus environment. Meaning that monitors aren't being cut because they aren't needed. They're being cut because of money. Which is more important child safety or money? It's negligent on the part of school districts to put drivers and students in this position. I don't think it would be that hard for a good attorney to convince a judge or jury of this fact in a lawsuit filed by parents. Drivers using a cell phone or texting while driving is not allowed because it will be too distracting to the driver. So, why is it acceptable for drivers to be distracted by trying to monitor 30 to 60 children while driving? How many tragedies does it have to take to force the districts to do the right thing?

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