BY DIANE DIMOND
If children are our most precious resource, then why aren’t we doing more to protect them as they travel to and from school?
For decades, there have been concerns about the lack of seat belts in school buses. Yet only six states have laws requiring them today. And five of those states only have the inadequate lap belts that are almost considered counterproductive because they can cause severe abdominal injury to a child on impact. Only California employs the safer lap-shoulder belts found in most cars today. Why is this?
The horror that occurred in Chattanooga, Tennessee, this week could have occurred just about anywhere. At this writing, six young school children are dead, several remain in intensive care, and many others are nursing injuries. This is after their speeding bus driver plowed into an obstruction on a winding road, nearly flipped the bus and crashed into a tree.
According to reports, the driver, 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, inexplicably left his designated route and drove onto a curvy road, allegedly shouting out to the kindergarten and elementary school students, “Are y’all ready to die?” His bus did not have seat belts. Tennessee does not require them.
Turns out that Walker has only had his commercial driver’s license since April, when he was hired by the contract transportation company Durham School Services. A police report shows that Walker had another accident eight weeks ago. He failed to yield on a blind curve and crossed over the center line, sideswiping an SUV going the opposite direction. No one was hurt, and police say neither alcohol nor drugs were involved. There’s no indication Walker received any punishment for the accident.
A look at Durham School Services’ record is also disturbing. Its buses have been involved in 17 accidents in Tennessee this year, which resulted in injuries to 19 people and one death.
A couple years ago, a Tennessee TV station reported that the company’s drivers had more than 250 bus crashes in Memphis, Tennessee, in three years. The report also revealed that some Durham bus drivers were operating without commercial licenses and had serious driving violations and drug records. One employee, arrested for smoking marijuana on the bus, had a felony record.
It seems like a miracle we don’t hear about more deadly school bus accidents, given what seems to be widespread lax oversight of bus drivers — from their hiring to their everyday job performance.
NBC News gathered reports from several of its stations nationwide and discovered that unsafe bus drivers are not uncommon. The NBC investigation discovered some 7,000 tickets were issued to school bus drivers in New York, Dallas, Texas, Miami and Broward County, Florida, over a two-year period. The citations were mostly given for speeding and ignoring traffic signals.
Traffic cam videos showed frightening scenes of yellow school buses — some with students onboard — racing through red lights at busy intersections. In some cases, bus drivers were caught on camera blowing by other school buses that were loading or unloading students, oblivious to the fully extended bus-side arm warning drivers to stop.
According to the NBC station in Dallas, school buses of the Dallas County Schools agency were involved in 200 crashes in the 2014-15 school year and 405 in the 2015-16 school year. Almost unbelievably, the agency provides bus service in 12 Dallas-area school districts, and it had never disciplined any of the drivers who were seen on video running red lights. It was as if that was considered a regular cost of doing business. The agency simply used taxpayer money to pay the $80,000 in ticket fines.
After extensive detailed reports on the travesty were aired, the school board finally acted. Two hundred and twenty-nine bus drivers in Dallas were suspended without pay, and another 13 were fired outright.
In this day and age, how can a factory be allowed to build a vehicle without seat belts if it’s designed to carry children? How can a school bus company fail to fully screen the backgrounds of drivers who will be transporting such vulnerable passengers? How does a driver who breaks the law or has an accident escape punishment?
If the federal government is not going to pursue regulations to help keep our children safe, it is up to parents and school boards in each state to become proactive. School bus drivers must be held to a high standard. Bus operators must either conduct more thorough background checks and ongoing performance reviews or face hefty fines. And there must be a renewed effort to retrofit all school buses with three-point seat belts, even though it can cost up to $10,000 per bus.
Isn’t your child or grandchild’s life worth it?
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net