The National Transportation Safety Board (NSTB) has renewed its 2018 recommendation calling for states to require passenger lap and shoulder belts on new, large school buses, as well as requiring systems that prevent lane departure on heavy vehicles, first issued in 2010 and updated in 2021.
Findings of an investigation into the 2020 crash between a school bus and a service utility truck in Decatur, Tenn., that killed two - including a 7-year-old child - led to this reiteration.
“This case is a gut-wrenching reminder that failure to act on our recommendations can lead to unimaginable — and preventable — tragedy,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. “School buses are often praised for their safety record, but we’ve become complacent. Children’s lives are at stake. The time to act is now.”
On Oct. 27, 2020, a service utility truck was traveling on a two-lane state route when its right-side wheels departed the roadway while the truck driver was looking in his rear mirror. When the truck driver steered back onto the roadway, the truck crossed into the opposing travel lane. At the same time, a school bus was approaching in the opposing travel lane. Although the bus driver braked, she did not have time to avoid the collision. The school bus driver and a 7-year-old child died. Four other passengers sustained serious injuries and 10 sustained minor injuries.
The investigation found that several school bus passengers were not seated properly at the time of the crash, which increased their injury risk. While the school bus did not have passenger lap and shoulder belts, the NTSB found that the belts, if worn properly, would have reduced their level of injury.
Though not required, the school bus was equipped with inward- and outward-facing video cameras, whose footage gave investigators valuable insight into students’ position within the seating compartment before the crash, as well as the subsequent sequence of events.
As a result of the investigation, the NTSB is recommending the following measures to improve the safety of children traveling on school buses, all of which could have prevented or mitigated the crash:
- Requiring lane departure prevention systems on new vehicles with gross weight ratings greater than 10,000 pounds. NTSB has been asking the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require systems that prevent lane departure since 2010.
- Requiring lap and shoulder belts for all passenger seating positions in new, large school buses. One recommendation was reiterated to Tennessee and multiple states that have not yet required lap and shoulder belts in new, large school buses. A second recommendation was reiterated to the three states that require only lap belts.
- Requiring all buses and trucks over 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight rating to be equipped with onboard video event recorders and for school officials to periodically review onboard video to ensure that students engage in safe transportation behaviors on school buses. These recommendations were issued to NHTSA and to the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, and the National School Transportation Association.