When a school bus driver in Hamburg, Iowa, attempted to make a left-hand turn on Aug. 19, it was anything but routine.
The driver was not wearing his seat belt, police said, and he fell out of his seat. With no one behind the wheel, the bus, understandably, went out of control.
According to the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office, the bus left the roadway, went onto a resident’s property, and crashed into her two-car, wood-framed garage. The garage was destroyed, and the resident’s car and riding lawnmower were damaged.
Fortunately, there were no students on the bus at the time. The sheriff’s office did not report any injuries.
The 61-year-old school bus driver was cited for failure to wear a seat belt and failure to maintain control.
Of course, it’s up to each school bus driver to wear his or her seat belt at all times while operating the bus. But we know from seeing occasional reports like the one above that there are some school bus drivers who aren’t always buckling up.
With that in mind, transportation supervisors have to reinforce the importance of driver seat belt compliance, and they have to monitor that compliance.
One tool that has proven to be helpful in making sure that drivers buckle up is fluorescent seat belts. They may not be the most aesthetically pleasing color choices, but they enhance the visibility of the driver’s shoulder belt from outside of the bus.
In some states, bright seat belts for drivers are included in school bus specifications. In Delaware, for example, school bus driver seat belts are spec’d in fluorescent green or orange. State director Ron Love has told us that these conspicuous colors make it easier for supervisors to see that their drivers are wearing their belts.
In July, Iowa updated its school spec rules in a variety of areas. One of the changes was a requirement for new school buses to have fluorescent seat belts for drivers.
Fluorescent seat belts for school bus drivers are also a state spec in North Carolina. Another initiative in the state that has helped ensure that bus drivers buckle up involves a sticker and a hotline.
In 2008, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI)’s transportation services department activated a hotline for students to call to report bus drivers not wearing their seat belts, as well as those who use their cell phone while driving. In the school districts that participate in the program, a sticker is placed in buses encouraging passengers to report violations to a number that goes to the DPI transportation office.
State director Derek Graham told us recently that calls to the hotline have greatly decreased in the past few years, which seems to indicate that the program is working.
Graham came up with the idea after the Huntsville, Alabama, crash in 2006 in which a school bus plunged off of an overpass, killing four students. The investigation of that accident found that the bus driver was not wearing his seat belt, and he was ejected from the bus before it plummeted from the overpass.
As Graham pointed out, school bus drivers’ decision to buckle up doesn’t just affect their own safety — it is essential to the safety of their students.
Thomas McMahon is executive editor of School Bus Fleet.