BEHIND THE HEADLINES

School bus accident data not clear-cut

Some districts failing to regularly report crashes, hindering safety efforts.

Picture

Fleet manager Charles Smith (left) and technician Chris Bishop run a new school bus through a post-delivery inspection at the Carroll Pitts Jr. Transportation Center on Thursday in Marietta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Picture

A school bus navigates rush hour traffic on I-75 South on Thursday in Atlanta. Metro school buses have been involved in more than 700 accidents this year. CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Picture

A crash involving a school bus and other vehicles Oct. 25 resulted in heavy delays on the Downtown Connector and one injury reported at the time. School bus safety has gained renewed attention after six Chattanooga elementary school students were killed last month when a driver lost control of the bus. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Metro Atlanta school buses have been involved in more than 700 accidents this year — about twice a day — according to the Georgia Department of Education. But those numbers are not complete, as state officials admit they struggle to get districts to report the numbers regularly.

State and district officials agree missing data hinders the ability of decision makers to better train drivers, spot accident trends and bad drivers and get the overall picture of bus safety, further putting children at risk as issues slip through the cracks. Though districts have an obligation to report crash data to the Georgia Department of Education, there are no penalties for not doing so.

“It’s very important (for districts to provide accurate crash data), so we can learn from our mistakes and learn where most of our crashes are coming from and what’s causing crashes,” said Trey Studstill, president of the Georgia Association for Pupil Transportation.

Studstill, who is also the Paulding County School District’s transportation director, also noted that not every district reports its bus crashes, which hinders the organization’s efforts to train drivers.

As last month’s fatal crash in Chattanooga, Tenn., lingers on the mind of parents across the country, questions arise about whether Georgia school districts — and state education leaders — are doing enough to keep children safe to and from school.

Through November, 302 students and drivers were injured in school bus accidents in Georgia, according to state data. Most of the injuries were minor. The total is just three less than all of 2015, and surpasses the 231 injured in 2014.

Bus drivers were charged in about one in three crashes, according to the state’s data. The most frequent causes for the wrecks were drivers misjudging clearance, backing up the school bus improperly or following another vehicle too closely.

Concern about school bus safety grew after six Chattanooga elementary school children were killed days before Thanksgiving when a bus driver said he lost control of the vehicle and it flipped, crashing into a utility pole and a tree. Police charged the driver, Johnthony Walker, 24, with vehicular homicide, saying he drove “well above the posted speed limit of 30 mph.”

A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against the bus manufacturer, the bus service contractor Durham School Services, and Walker by the family of 10-year-old Zyanna Harris, who was killed in the crash. Attorneys allege negligence, noting the driver was speeding, and that the manufacturer could have produced a bus with more safety features. They also cited 346 crashes by Durham School Services in the past two years as proof.

How complete is Georgia’s bus crash data? Depends who gives the answer.

S c h o o l d i s t r ic ts a re required to report every accident within 45 days to the Georgia Department of Education through an online portal. But some districts report crashes sparingly — if at all — according to data the state released. The DeKalb County School District did not report any crashes in 2014 and only two in 2015, but reported 206 crashes from July 21 through November this year, more than any school district in Georgia.

The district learned of the yearly discrepancies from an inquiry by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

DeKalb County School District officials, in an emailed statement, said they are investigating why the numbers reported differ so much in the past few years. The district is working to correct its reporting over the past two years before the end of December.

“Since learning that the accidents were not reported in the last two years, we st ar ted pulling weekly reports of what is reported to the state,” district officials said in the statement. “A bus accident report is now produced once per week to verify that we are reporting accidents.”

In neighboring Gwinnett Count y Public Schools, spokeswoman Sloan Roach said the district has a person in its transportation department who oversees safety and submits reports within two to three weeks.

“This allows us to complete any investigation on our part, interview the driver and obtain any police reports,” she said.

Georgia Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said officials have been in touch with several school districts that failed to submit complete bus data. Cardoza said the state uses the data to monitor districts and provide training where there are issues.

In metro Atlanta, APS, Clayton and Gwinnett bus crash data appears consistent over the three-year reporting period provided to the AJC.

DeKalb County parent Alselma Campos is increasingly fearful for her son’s safety when he rides the bus to school. Campos lives in the Forest Glen Apartments, one of several complexes along Pleasantdale Road, where there have been two bus crashes in recent months, including one in September where 15 students were hospitalized.

While the September accident was included in the state’s database, provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it did not include the crash’s location, or the fact that children were hospitalized.

“ S o m e t i m e s I wo r r y because I see these accidents,”she said last week while waiting with her son, Erik Hernandez, 14, an eighth-grader, at Henderson Middle School.

An AJC analysis of the st ate’s dat a shows bus crashes occur more frequently, as measured by crashes per pupil, in smaller Georgia districts, such as Troup and Wayne county schools. However, metro Atlanta districts such as Fayette and DeKalb were among the top ten this year in bus crashes per pupil.

Studstill said the most frequent bus driver errors are misjudging clearance or the height of objects that a school bus may hit, and “tail swinging,” when the rear of a school bus goes too wide when turning. And anyone injured in a school bus crash potentially gets little financial relief. State law allows school districts to determine how much insurance to carry for students injured on a school bus. People in other vehicles involved in a school bus crash can sue the driver, but not the school district under state law.

“I think school districts should be playing by the same rules as counties and cities,” said Darl Champion Jr., an Atlanta-based attorney who has discussed the issue with some state lawmakers. “What can be more important than making sure if a child gets hurt, they can be protected?”

Georgia’s public school bus drivers must annually take two hours of state or other training. Some school districts require more than two hours. Paulding conducts monthly training reviews, Studstill said.

Studstill said his association has worked hard in the past three years to improve driver safety. He believes it’s largely worked, noting no one was killed in a school bus crash in 2014 and 2015. This year, there’s been one fatality, a 15-year-old Lowndes County student who died in late August when a tractor trailer carrying an oversize load of metal beams collided with a school bus.

“I think we have good safety,” Studstill said, “but there are always areas where we can improve upon.”

In Georgia, school bus drivers can be as young as 18, as long as they have passed a driving skills test and other requirements. Some districts require drivers to be 21 or older. Georgia’s laws do not mention mental health checks.

Georgia does not require seat belts on school buses, which continue s to be debated by education and safety experts. A National Transportation Safety Board report released earlier this year concluded seat belts keep students safer. Others cite research that shows it’s more than six times safer to transport students in a school bus — even without seat belts — than in their parents’ car that has seat belts.

California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York are the only states that require seat belts on school buses, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Texas requires seat belts on school buses purchased after 2010.

Data specialist Jennifer

Peebles contributed to this article.

See this article in the e-Edition Here