Transportation leaders are reflecting on what they’ve learned five years after a horrific school bus crash killed a driver and its lone passenger in Oakland, Iowa. It exposed the lack of driver fitness among many school bus drivers across the country.
Max Christensen with the Iowa Department of Education’s bureau of school business operations spoke about bus driver fitness issues, including the fatal Iowa crash, at the 53rd annual National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services Conference this week. It was part two of the virtual conference, which had its first workshops in December.
On Dec. 12, 2017, bus driver Donnie Hendricks and 16-year-old student passenger Megan Klindt were killed when Hendricks backed the bus into a ditch and the engine burst into flames, spreading throughout the entire bus. Neither Hendricks nor Klindt were able to escape.
Documents from the National Transportation Safety Board later revealed 74-year-old Hendricks had several medical issues.
Then-NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said “drivers should not only be able to operate the vehicle, but also be able to assist in the evacuation of passengers in an emergency.”
Said Christensen: “The potential school bus driver must consistently meet minimum standards to even get behind the wheel of that school bus. And yet we still have accidents. We still have drivers out there who shouldn't be driving."
Christensen highlighted a handful of fatal bus crashes involving drivers he deemed unfit. In a 2016 Baltimore crash, 67-year-old Glenn Chappell was killed when the school bus he was driving collided with a public transit bus. The driver of the other bus and four passengers also were killed. An NTSB report revealed the driver had a history of seizures, diabetes, and hypertension. Chappell also was involved in at least 12 crashes in the previous five years.
In a 2016 Chattanooga, Tenn. crash, 24-year-old school bus driver Johnthony Walker flipped the bus and smashed into a tree, killing six children. Prosecutors alleged that Walker was on the phone at the time of the crash, and was speeding. He was charged in connection to the crash. School records revealed there were numerous complaints against Walker for alleged reckless driving practices. He also was in a minor accident several months prior, sideswiping a car after he failed to yield.
In 2018, a Mount Olive, N.J., crash, 77-year-old school bus driver Hudy Muldrow, Sr. collided with a truck when he attempted to cross lanes of traffic to make a U-turn after missing an exit. A teacher and student onboard the bus were killed. Muldrow was indicted in the crash. It was later discovered Muldrow had 14 license suspensions on his records, with the most recent one happening just six months before the crash. Muldrow had also been cited a handful of times for speeding, received two tickets, and was involved in at least one other crash previously.
As a result of the Iowa crash, the NTSB made 10 safety recommendations to prevent similar tragedies. Four were related to drivers, one targeted students, and five referenced school bus manufacturing standards.
One of the major recommendations suggested that 44 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico revise requirements so that all school bus drivers must pass a physical performance test upon hiring, and at least once a year after that. The recommendation also suggested the test be performed when a driver’s physical condition changes in a way that could affect their ability to perform duties, including helping passengers evacuate a bus.
Based on a recent survey Christensen conducted, it appeared very few states implemented the recommendation. Out of 24 survey responses he received, only one state now requires a physical performance test. The Iowa Department of Education currently allows local districts to determine whether to require it.
The NTSB is currently in communication with 21 states about their responses to its recommendation. The agency has deemed 15 of those states’ responses as “acceptable.” It lists six states’ responses as “unacceptable.” It has not received responses from 25 states. Click here to see each states’ responses.
Christensen said most states’ physical performance tests are modeled after the test implemented for New York school bus drivers. He said in order to avoid discrimination, the test needs to be required for all drivers—regardless of weight or age. In order to best implement a physical performance test for drivers, Christensen suggested announcing the new requirement several months in advance, to allow drivers time to prepare.
“We certainly have made some progress in our driver fitness, [but] we've got a long ways to go,” said Christensen.
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