May 22, 2018 / 6:50 PM / 7 months ago

U.S. safety agency says school districts need better bus driver oversight

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that two high-profile school bus crashes in 2016 that led to 12 deaths were the result of poor oversight of drivers that should not have been behind the wheel.

Rescue officials at the scene of a school bus crash involving several fatalities in Chattanooga, Tennessee, U.S., November 21, 2016. Courtesy of Chattanooga Fire Dept/Handout via REUTERS

“In both crashes, we saw poor driver oversight, both by the school districts and by the contracted motor carriers that provided student transportation services,” NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said at a board meeting Tuesday. “Neither of these drivers should have been behind the wheel.”

Johnthony Walker, the driver of a school bus that crashed in Tennessee in 2016 that killed six children, was convicted in March of six counts of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced last month to four years in prison.

Authorities have said Walker was speeding on a winding road while using a cellphone before the bus veered off course, flipped on its side and hit a tree. Over a dozen other children on the bus were injured in the crash.

In another crash under examination at Tuesday’s board meeting, a school bus and transit bus struck in Baltimore, killing both drivers and four passengers on the transit bus. No students were killed.

The driver in Tennessee had a series of complaints against him for unsafe driving practices, the NTSB said, while the Baltimore driver was prone to seizures, including while driving.

There is increasing concern about school bus crashes amid high-profile incidents, even though traveling by school bus remains statistically safe, the NTSB said. A school bus crash last week in New Jersey killed a 10-year-old girl and a school teacher.

The NTSB is continuing to push for safety upgrades to school buses, including mandating seat belts and adding anti-rollover technology electronic stability control (ESC) and requiring automatic emergency braking.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2015 mandated ESC for truck tractors and most buses but exempted school buses. Canada in 2017 required school buses to have ESC.

The NTSB said if Baltimore and Chattanooga school buses had been equipped with ESC the “crashes could have been prevented or mitigated.”

Nearly 500,000 school buses transport more than 26 million students to school and other activities every day. Over a 10-year-period ending in 2014, 64 passengers and 46 drivers died in school-bus crashes, NHTSA said. The agency has said that traveling to school by bus remains far safer than traveling by personal vehicle.

NHTSA does not mandate seat belts, except for small school buses weighing less than 10,000 pounds.

Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Diane Craft

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